Tuesday, August 28, 2012

take a hike

I have a confession to make. One that is tough to admit, but I must get it off my chest. You see, I am a ped---no, it's not what you think, you chauffeurist pig! Pedestrian. I am a pedestrian.

It is true I own a car and have a valid driver's license. But I often choose to walk. And the more I walk, the more enjoyable it becomes, and the less effort it seems to require. Of course, there are many downsides to the Shoe Leather Express in this land of the Land Rover.

Since I rarely venture further than a radius of three or four miles from my home, I have come to be well acquainted with the few sidewalks and many road shoulders of my immediate Suffolk community.

I wouldn't say I keep to a routine schedule with my walks. After all, part of the mystique of mileage the hard way, is the freedom one feels as the lone rambler, making his or her progress slowly but steadily, while the modern world whizzes past, burning fossil fuels and rubber. Still, might one not logically assume that over time local drivers could intuit my iterant itinerary? Perhaps drivers would even come to accept my presence on the shoulder of the road with that sort of top-of-the-food-chain nonchalance that silverbacked gorillas show the lonely zoologist munching leaves on the periphery of their patriarchal group. Uhh, that would be no.

Maybe I have achieved a choking coexistence with the speeding majority of drivers. However, there is a persistent and aggressive subgroup of wheel men (and women no doubt), who apparently object strongly enough to my ambulations as to want to put me in an ambulance.

I refer to those motorists whose aggressive behavior is not unlike the false charge of an alpha male silverback. This type of driver and his passenger, whom I shall call "shotgun," will roll down the car window with the press of a button and let loose blood-curdling and invariably monosyllabic shouts as they zoom past. I assume this serves to mark territory in an auditory manner. Perhaps the driver then looks to his rearview and shotgun cranes his neck as they hurtle down the road in the hope of seeing the walking man start or stumble in the wake of this unexpected assault on his ears, which up until then had been enjoying the gentle symphony of birdsong and leaf rustle.

A variation on this theme is the car traveler who screams a phrase in the American vernacular, invariably comprised of a second person pronoun along with a word or two long considered a punishable offense by the FCC if broadcast. Sometimes for effect an arm is thrust out of the window, while the hand attached to it contorts to create an antisocial gesture, the one where the opposable thumb, upon which our species heaps so much hubris, serves no useful role.

The veteran pedestrian learns not to "take it personal." The walker freely chooses his mode of conveyance in part due to the time and opportunity it affords him to ruminate. Thus the hiker's mind has the leisure to contemplate the pressures which the automobile driver is under: monthly lease payments, rising gas prices, points on a license, an inferior wax job, a 30-decibel rap song, tailgating the jerk ahead while at the same time suffering the idiot behind who’s riding one's bumper. Then there are the ever widening safety recalls, an endless loop of cell phone conversations, and let us not forget rpm, mpg, and HOV worries. And with unmarked police cars patrolling for practitioners of road rage, there are few safe outlets left today for such pent up frustrations, other than of course the one offered by the habitue of the curbstone, the jaded jaywalker, the by-his-very-nature suspicious pedestrian: Why is that man walking anyway? Odd. Can't he afford a car? Loser. License revoked? Drunk. Never learned how to drive? Subversive.

Of course, most drivers are too hands-on with their cell phones to bother shouting or gesticulating obscenities to a stranger who doesn't even register on a radar gun. If those motorists veer toward the pedestrian at the last moment, chances are it isn't a well-timed feint intended to cause the walker to faint. It is probably just the result of inattention or a slippery I-phone. These drivers typically flash their brights or lay on the horn as they approach the man on the shoulder. Such drivers are usually riding that very same shoulder, either due to a sudden gust of centrifugal force following a familiar curve in the road or temporary amnesia as it affects the whereabouts and function of the brake pedal, or because such drivers prefer to view the shoulder as an extra lane for passing on the right. After all, they rationalize, this space will be another lane sooner or later when the road is inevitably widened. So why wait, just because the roadwork is behind schedule.

There are of course also drivers too numerous to count, who are convinced their Camry is as wide as a classic Caddy. They feel the shoulder is there to give them extra space in the face of oncoming traffic. Or perhaps those drivers are armchair civil engineers who doubt the legitimate design and construction of the highway.

I hate to sound like a pedestrian who has been buzzed closely one too many times by SUVs the size of a Hamptons hedgerow (I am), but most drivers seem more adept at pinpointing their real-time location with GPS than they are at keeping in their lanes.

Of course the seasoned pedestrian will also have remarked how differently drivers stopped at a red light behave when approached by the walker. Just stroll along a line of cars waiting for that light to turn green, and you'll hear something that sounds like a geiger counter thrown into a pile of yellowcake: the sudden clicking of door locks. Sometimes, if I am wearing old jeans, and haven't shaved for a few days, I'll stare at the driver and watch their hands tighten on the steering wheel, lips tremble, eyes stare straight ahead, while the superstitious drool as they mouth half-forgotten implorations of St. Christopher.

Despite the risks, the happy pedestrian keeps on truckin'. He knows thinking is always dangerous, whether you do it aloud in your boss's earshot or while walking the rural roads of Long Island. But he knows it is worth it. And then there are health benefits: shin splints, sore feet, and carbon monoxide poisoning. Never will the walker shiver in room temperature. Even winter weather seems toasty to the walker. As he begins his second mile the blood pumps thoroughly, keeping fingertips and ear helices warm despite the evil wind chill.

Another advantage of walking along the highways and byways is that you can sing or play the harmonica as poorly as humanly possible without causing grief to another soul. Whereas I'm told hitchhikers often wail, Dylan-like, "Stuck inside of Mobile, with the Memphis Blues again," I tend to sing an eclectic mix, including the Grateful Dead. The lyric of Ripple, by Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia, includes these lines:

...There is a road,
no simple highway,
between the dawn and the dark of night.
And if you go,
no one may follow.
That path is for your steps alone.

So if you see a strange figure marching along the side of the road, remember that sidewalks are not ubiquitous or always clear of debris. If you reduce your speed, the pedestrian will notice this and pray you arrive safe, without a flat tire, a moving violation, or a human being on your grille.

Monday, August 27, 2012

For the Archaeologists

Two and a half million years ago,
Australopithicus carefully shopped
for her rocks, chipping lava flakes
into tools to scrape slaughtered flesh
from the bones of the vanquished.
Glad to be vicious on Spaceship Earth.

Our ancestors lived with Kilimanjaro
like we live with TV,
and they knew more about Homo sapiens' dawn
than could be conveniently passed on
in the fossil record
to those who tap in mud
and tread like lost airmen
praying for the pacifists
or the peacekeeping force;
brothers in debris.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Cinema 2004: Crash

"Crash" has been called a film about racism, a description which nails its leitmotif but fails to do justice to an engrossing film about a variety of people loving and hating in L.A.

The movie, written, directed and co-produced by Caucasian Canadian Paul Haggis, comes at its subject matter from so many angles it might even appeal to some racists.

“Crash” provides plenty of drama to keep the enjoyment level high while a mixed bag of racial and ethnic stereotypes parade in front of the camera lens. As the pieces to the puzzle-like narrative fall into place, we are shown ostensible reasons for racism, but also persons who refuse to give in to hate.

In “Crash” Haggis also dares to point out that there are no guarantees: someone’s racially motivated judgment may just turn out to be accurate in a particular instance. Without moralizing or even leaving us with a moral at the end of the story, "Crash" does, however, lament the ultimately losing proposition racism represents -- whether it is practiced by an individual or a bureaucracy. The anger and hatred recycled throughout the City of Angels by the racially prejudiced characters in this film is shown to be a destructive force that takes a human toll.

Sandra Bullock plays a district attorney's wife, defined by attendant privilege. When she is traumatized by armed carjackers, it brings out the bile of her biased views. Bullock’s performance is absolutely raw; she is a woman alone with her anger, whose husband (Brendan Fraser) is more involved with political damage control than reconnecting with his spouse after their harrowing experience.

Matt Dillon is a cop who blames "the job" for his lack of humanity and the dehumanizing way he interacts with others, whether they are African-Americans, women, Hispanics or rookie cops. And it is "the job" which will ultimately define him.

Don Cheadle, also a co-producer, plays a police detective whose senile mother blames him for the misspent life of his younger brother (Larenz Tate), an otherwise intelligent kid, who just happens to practice armed robbery. Cheadle’s character is all too well aware of the ramifications of race on his job and in his department. However, he is paralyzed to act against it by the same world-weariness, acquired from years of chasing down bad guys, that arguably allows him to continue to function in his job while caring for his increasingly helpless mother.

Rookie officer Hanson (Ryan Philippe) is disgusted by gratuitous abuse. But his instincts are not yet honed enough for him to successfully navigate the hard-to-predict world of cops and robbers.

An African-American TV director (Terrence Howard) is forced by events to re-examine his place in society. When and where he chooses to make his stand might reflect the stranglehold of “the man” or it might just hold the key to real social change. Viewers will decide for themselves.

Thandie Newton delivers a performance of wide-ranging authentic emotions in her pivotal role as Cameron’s wife. Chris “Ludacris” Bridges plays Anthony, the garrulous “Go To” guy in a gang of two. Armed and delusional, he rants about conspiracy theories on racially charged themes, while preying upon solid citizens. But when his snub-nose is wrested from him during an attempted carjacking, Anthony is symbolically emasculated, and he freezes in fearful helplessness. Afterward he slips back into his criminal routine, but Anthony may have found religion or at least a moral line on the asphalt that he is not ready to cross.

In one subplot we watch a loving father provide for his preschool daughter while trying to keep her safe from gun violence. At the same time, a caring adult daughter reluctantly helps her angry storekeeper father purchase a gun he is convinced he needs for his protection. The unlikely convergence of those separate households plays out like a karmic ballet.

At times in “Crash” it seems as if L.A. is home to only hateful people. But amid all the useless bluster we are also given a glimpse of the potential for a racially harmonious future. It lies within the grasp of each of us, literally: the same hands that violate, can also save and console.

"Crash" also holds up the inherent innocence of children as part of the plan for a better future. Aligned against this hope is a formidable adversary: the prejudice alive in men's hearts and society's institutions.

“Crash” teeters at times on a cliff of conspicuous contrivance and melodrama, but its in-your-face attitude, the praiseworthy lyricism of James Muro’s cinematography and an emotive musical score keep it from plunging over the edge.

In the big city, with its fast pace, complex institutions and disparate populations, it is all too expeditious to misjudge based on skin shade or language. “Crash” leaves its audience questioning the wisdom of basing important choices on such insignificant matters.

Saturday, August 25, 2012


Living on Long Island is many things to many people in many neighborhoods.

Goose Creek in Southold, New York

Out east along the North Fork, we slap NOFO stickers on our car bumpers, relishing the linguistic closeness our area's abbreviation shares with a certain short-form expletive, often uttered by locals at the sight of vehicles bearing Jersey tags.

We cherish our undeveloped and agricultural environs. We enjoy the seasonal harvests, from berries to veggies to the fruit of the grape. We slurp local pinot and chardonnay, despite the relative expense of many of those rather small vintages. And while there ain’t nothing wrong with potato fields--especially if your ancestors were Bavarian peasants like some of mine--vineyards are more fun, even a Bavarian-American with a penchant for hops will admit that.

We flourish in our small town atmosphere. We talk to complete strangers in stores, on the street and at the piers. Mass transit is scarce. The LIRR doesn’t run many trains out our way. There is one county bus route that connects easternmost Orient Point to Riverhead at the western end of the twin forks. Service comes by about once an hour. But bus drivers stop anywhere along the road if a would-be rider flags them down and those same drivers, aware of the special East End exigencies, will let you off as close as possible to your destination. Speaking of roads, we basically have two east-west arteries to link us with Riverhead and points further west. While those routes have official county numbers, we know them simply as the main road and the north road.

Deer, egret and osprey sightings are commonplace. And when it comes to area animal husbandry, horses, cows, goats and chickens co-exist with alpacas, bison and yaks.

Any “up-island” commute aside, the pace of life out east on the North Fork is slower and old fashioned. Cars and houses are often left unlocked. Over summer vacation, kids form “gangs” only to enjoy popular outdoor activities like boating, swimming, and jumping off pilings and bridges into the clean waters of Southold Bay, Peconic Bay, or Greenport Harbor.

Angling in the bays, the Sound, and the Atlantic yields a variety of fish that are fun to land and tasty to eat. The abundance of shellfish and the ease with which it may be harvested makes linguini with clam sauce a cheap and easily prepared fresh feast.

We North Fork residents enjoy our rural refuge, especially in the off-season when the “Cidiots” are back in their urban centers. Of course, the summertime tourist traffic that clogs our two-lane roads resurges briefly as those nature-starved suburbanites return to pick pumpkins and purchase dried cornstalks. Later, many come back once more to select a tannenbaum from the Christmas tree farms.

Our fork may not yet be home to as many artsy types as the Hamptons, but there are plenty of rich folks with big boats. Still, most people are struggling like the rest of Long Island. If you live here you know it’s a hard dollar.

We have our share of solid citizens who are high school educated and hardworking, two fine attributes which alone, however, can not guarantee virtue. But most folks are nice enough and good natured. However, if you look or act too different than what they’re accustomed to, well, many’s the NOFO native with a narrow comfort zone.

Mostly we enjoy living amid the natural beauty. It relaxes us and helps put the proverbial rat race in its proper perspective. And for that, we often thank the Almighty.

Friday, August 24, 2012

the best life

As many young people return to campus and college classes, I am reminded that student life is indeed the best life.

In German that notion is summed up in a famous old saying, Studentenleben ist das beste Leben, which probably dates all the way back to Heidelberg University itself where, I was once told, some lucky student gets to live in an apartment inside the tower gate on the Old Bridge, seen in this Web photo.

I myself was first introduced to the German adage during my own student days at Hamburg University, which was also a very long time ago. I figured the idea was true enough but never sincerely appreciated its significance until many years later. I suppose that lag is typical for a slow learner and erstwhile exemplar of that other well worn aphorism, namely, "Youth is wasted on the young."

The other day some guy on the bus was talking to a woman about the German language. He said, Was ist los and explained how he had learned it while in the U.S. Army stationed in Germany. Then he pronounced another word he remembered from his Army days in Deutschland: Arschloch. If he puts it all together he can say "What’s up, asshole?" in German. I guess that’s about all the German language you really need to know.

It reminds me of the custodian I knew who tried to teach me the only two phrases he could remember from his native Welsh. Kaira droos meant close the door and there was a second phrase which I can't recall, but spoken together it was something like, "Give me a beer and close the door."

Now what more do you really need to say ... Arschloch?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

thoughts about words

Found a brief moment of quiet in the sun reading W.S. Merwin. The genius of his poems grabbed me completely and deeply. There is a tone adopted by writers whose profound love of and communion with the language—many languages—marks their work. That tone is perhaps not so much adopted as discovered. One works their way to it. Fights through to it—no I don’t like that description. It is not a fight. Sure you may struggle to learn a second or third language but the major dynamic is cooperation. As Merwin wrote: ”speech lent itself to my purpose.”

Cinema 2005: A Brutal Look at Nation Building

"Proposition" unfolds with the rigor of a traditional dirge, and yet it manages to enfold its audience uncannily in a story that takes place faraway (for Americans) and many generations ago.

Part "Unforgiven," part "Apocalypse Now," “Proposition,” by John Hillcoat, is set in the Australian frontier around the mid-19th century. In this frontier settlement, white men struggle to scratch a living from a harsh land, while striving to "civilize" the dark-skinned aborigines, whom they don't yet quite recognize as their brothers.

“We are white men, not beasts,” one character exhorts a colleague. The white man has also brought an army to enforce his laws in settlements which evolved out of penal colonies in the semi-arid landscape, where “God has evaporated.”

One of the men charged with enforcing the law, Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), decides to play one outlaw against the outlaw’s more dangerous brother (the proposition of the title), and Hillcoat’s film is set in motion. The proposition made to Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) is simple and cruel: kill your murderous brother Arthur (Danny Huston) in order to save your younger, weaker one. The proposition is not so much the plot as the philosophical core of the movie, written by Nick Cave, otherwise known as the frontman for the internationally renowned band “Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds,” and who composed the movie’s haunting, original score.

The movie provides stunning visuals of a vast Australian landscape that abides in mute witness to the ephemeral struggles of humans, who face long odds, whether cultivating roses or murdering their own kind. Charlie appears to accept fratricide and rides off in search of his brother. Along the way, Charlie encounters an erudite bounty hunter (John Hurt), who mocks the world and all man's endeavors; his vast experience and chosen profession have taught him cynicism, what else?

As Charlie continues his quest, he is attacked and wounded by aborigines. His life is saved by his brother Arthur, whose gang nurses Charlie back to health. The near-death experience is common in film. Convalescence provides the man of action the time and inkling to meditate on his situation, an otherwise unlikely behavior. Here it also piles an additional moral dilemma upon Charlie, who would now have to kill the man who saved his life.

In the meantime, the forces of civilization, driven by lofty ambitions and baser instincts, throw another monkey wrench into Stanley's plan, and his crafty plotting to advance the cause of justice threatens to come unraveled at the covetous hands of his venal comrades.

The captain’s wife, Martha (Emily Watson), stands at her white picket fence, surrounded by a barren wilderness that taunts human existence, let alone civilization. Her husband has created this rough estate to protect her, since even the town where he is garrisoned is too demoralizing.

Martha is in many ways a prisoner in a dream world of rose gardens and bone china. Her isolation from the primitive day-to-day life is symbolized by her white skin, always protected from the sun. But Martha asserts herself, as she pushes against the boundaries her husband has set, and tries to understand the unsentimental truth of her situation and surroundings. Driven by dreams and her own independent spirit, she dares to defy her husband in her own quest to learn the truth.

Martha is sickened by what she learns and sees, and retreats into the trappings of tradition, preparing a fancy Christmas dinner for her world-weary husband. The fine table and many upper class accoutrements of the Stanley household not only seem out of place in that cruel land, they also prove to be an insult to the tooth and nail local culture. The Christmas dinner scene is a testimony to man’s striving to tame the wilderness around him and within his own breast, while at the same time it is a tenuous monument to the transitory nature of man’s achievements. We simply cannot believe this couple will be allowed to enjoy a blessed Christmas meal in peace. They have tried to tame a wild land, but it has become clear they are woefully overextended.

What happens next may not surprise, but the movie does beg the question whether the Stanleys’ experiences to that point have informed and fortified them enough to deal with and withstand the cruel violence that still defines that human outpost. Who survives? That is a tough call in a place where Death has not yet been tamed. But if the captain's instincts were right, if indeed a changing of the guard is under way, then maybe there is hope for civilization.

When Charles is finally forced by events to make his choice between frontier violence and the incipient rule of law, his actions undoubtedly shock the Stanleys more than they do his own brother, who nonetheless believes himself deserving of mercy, at least the fraternal kind. Finally, it is Arthur who gives us one of cinema’s more poignant questions, despite its apparent simplicity: “What are you gonna do now, Charlie?

Monday, August 20, 2012

happy hour

The writer limped into Bar Louie. His foot was bothering him. He couldn’t remember if he had injured it. He was almost 60 years old. Maybe just age, he thought, fearful, and quickly crawled up on a barstool away from all apprehension.

A female voice said hello. It didn’t immediately occur to him he was the one being so addressed. But after a pause he turned to his left and saw a 20-something, skinny babe. She looked at him almost smiling. It was more a promise she wore on her face than a grin. She was sexy. That was the immediate impression made by that perky countenance and the way she dressed. Sleeveless top and short shorts. Stockings. Christ she was all legs and lips, the old man thought, with luscious light-olive skin everywhere in between.

She told him all kinds of lies. The old man thought she acted like she wanted to hook but wasn’t sure how to take that first step. She seemed to be broke and was neatly stacking the small change she got back after buying a bottle of Budweiser. If she were already hooking surely she’d have plenty of green to flaunt. But maybe that was her play: the vulnerable waif. She was almost anime looking. A fool's fantasy, he thought.

She told him she just wanted to party somewhere and be left alone by the cops. Said she was rousted in the Wal-Mart parking lot where she claimed to have been reading a book in her car. The old man just following the conversation. Said she owns a house in Toledo but her mother rented it out while she was away in South Carolina. She was in South Carolina because she had wanted to get away and that was as far as she got. The old man liked that part. It was about the only thing she said that rang true, he thought.

She was a brunette with a sassy haircut and a titanium barbell through the helix of her right ear. Nice eyes, a piercing gray. She was long and lean and he could not help imagining her flopping uncontrollably like a hooked fish in his selfish embrace.

In conversation he was extremely cool and noncommittal. He certainly was not on the make for some 21-year-old. He figured he had no need to act like an even bigger fool than he must already seem to the youngish female waitstaff watching their odd twosome.

Then this ‘dude’ sitting on the young babe’s left, and who had been giving her the hungry up and down, starts talking to her. The old man contents himself with looking at the TV above the bar. The dude was maybe 30-something. At first glance he was kind of cool looking. But his rap faltered and his looks didn’t hold up to extended scrutiny.

Now the old man thought, was this dude brazenly cutting in on his action? Should he get the sweet babe to turn back his way and talk to him some more? But what did he care. He told himself again he was not going to make her, no way it would ever happen and even as he was forcing those rational thoughts through his mind he scrambled for any experience or memory or sign that might tell him otherwise. It could be possible, couldn't it? Would he even really want to? Dumb question. If she whispered in his ear he knew he would follow her but would only expect to be rolled. It was that kind of situation. Still, he didn’t like this dude thinking he could push him aside. The dude offered to buy her a beer. She said she had a fresh one but would accept another when she was ready. Then the dude got up and headed to the john.

The old man considered following the dude and setting him straight right there in the cramped men’s room. Bugger off, Buckeye boy before I teach you the Japanese word for elbow.

But instead the old man just slouched on his bar stool watching “Around the Horn” on the muted TV, trying to read the slate behind Woody Paige. It had words on it to the effect of “Why do you keep staring at me when I am invisible?” Good question.

The dude came back, settled his tab and walked out. Great, the young babe said, talking to the old man again. There goes my free beer. That guy said he would buy me a beer. But I already had one. Now he’s gone.

Maybe he went to the ATM, the old man joked. He was in his element now. He had dollars. I will be happy to buy you a beer, he told the young babe and she smiled back at him.

There was nothing like a cute girl to make the world a real place, he told himself. She had a turned-up nose and her whole face seemed turned upward. That was a very sexy attitude for a girl, he thought, to be looking up at the man. A mix of admiration, expectation, willingness. It was all there in the upward tilt of the neck, the angle of the eyes.

She liked Hunter Thompson, she said, and the old man told her about duke's derby day story. She corrected him, claiming the derby is run in Lexington, trying to pass herself off as knowledgeable about that part of the country, he supposed, or just knowledgeable about the world in general, as if to say, hey, I'm not just some lost little Toledo girl. I know things. I know about (and long for) the big bad world out there.

The old man didn't argue but of course she was wrong. So young, yet already so full of bull shit. Sad young American. Still he was seduced by her small mouth and her lips like filigree. But she had definite problemos. Was totally mental.

How about writing a story where such a babe does in fact hook up with an older writer guy, himself lost to society anyway. They high-tail it to South Carolina together, running away from boredom, running toward deeper troubles. He liked the idea. Maybe too derivative. But it was one thousand times more real than his manuscript about student hijinks from the 1970s, the old man thought, and realized why he was stalled in the middle of that tale. Compared to this young, sexed up and pathetic babe, it was crap.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Sweet cherry marmalade

Sweet cherry marmalade
drips on your morning fingers,
oozes over thick, saltless butter,
spread on French bread, still warm,
while two cubes dissolve
at the bottom of your cup.

She sits across the table
in her robe, caring
in the freshly painted day.

This is breakfast every morning.
In fifteen you are due at the Institut.
You trust your mouth to the serviette.
She lights her cigarette,
and sucks in the first smoke of the day.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

my old school

Wandering over the nearly abandoned campus of Bowling Green State University last week in search of inspiration, I came across this huge graphic attached to the side of a building next to the library.

Campus was practically empty since this was a day or so after summer finals had ended and a good week before fall semester "moving in nonsense" would get under way. A young Chinese woman came up to me to ask directions to East Hall. I was of no help. Wo bu zhidao. I hadn't been on campus for decades. Tempus fugit and vita breva and ch-ch-changes.

But I did find inspiration. And that graphic of a soldier rappelling down a cliff reminded me of a Saturday in 1972 when members of campus ROTC rappelled for real from the roof of the library. At the time I recall thinking that was the generally much-despised ROTC's only use for the building which the intellectual in me so venerated. Ch-ch-changes.

In juxtaposition, perhaps some zen-leaning undergrad will choose this campus evergreen for his Bodhi tree and spend hours beneath it in introspection, quiet sitting, or just smiling at the coeds as they cut by.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Classic Cinema: The Spy Who Came In From The Cold

This 1965 classic movie, based on John LeCarre’s gritty novel, will drag you no-nonsense through the post-World War II dirty game of East versus West.

The absurdity of Checkpoint Charlie, of the division of Berlin, of the political aftermath of the war, is all boiled down in the opening scene to a nondescript man, worn and sleepless, holding a cup of coffee—reason’s only ally. This man is Alec Leamus (Richard Burton), Britain’s world-weary spy chief in Berlin. The gunning down of Leamus’s agent -- just meters from the safety of the West -- represents a triumph of might and violence over vain cunning. The scene foreshadows Leamus’s own path, except that in his case he will reject cunning, in the person of George Smiley (Rupert Davies), and the entire architecture of espionage in favor of the respite that sentimentality provides for the disillusioned.

In his role as Leamus, Burton hardly permits himself to ham it up. Instead, he plays it close to the bone. The shamelessness of men has worn his mien and made his speech slither. Leamus guards his inner self tightly, but still values love and the rarity of sweetness in a crumby world where he has for years been waist-deep in a lousy business.

The single exception to Burton’s approach to his character is the prelude to his punch-up with his grocer. The assault serves to pad Leamus’s résumé, since it results in a stint behind bars. In the scene, an inebriated Leamus verbally abuses a Mediterranean couple, ostensibly venting his frustration at the abject failure that has been his career. Here Leamus suddenly waxes chauvinistic about “red-blooded prawns” fished out of Dublin Bay. Because Burton’s character in the film has to sell himself as a drunken bigot, it makes perfect cinematic sense for Burton to emote over the top. The poor couple in the store is shocked, and we are as well, since this Shakespearian outburst contrasts sharply with Burton’s portrayal of Leamus up until then.

Leamus has been unerringly to the point; he is flippant and condescending to the head librarian into whose employ his cover takes him, never hesitating to demonstrate his superior intellect and his thick disdain for any conventional deference to one’s workplace superiors. He is unnecessarily cruel to the homosexual agent who recruits him. Leamus must give the impression of a disenchanted veteran spy, whose years of loyalty have earned him the wastebasket of history and put an ugly chip on his shoulder.

Leamus accepts a dinner invitation from Nan (Claire Bloom), his co-worker at the library, after she refuses to be put off by his predilection for liquid lunches. On the contrary, that seems to attract her to him. It is perhaps a case of good girl drawn to bad boy, or maybe Nan cannot resist the seriousness of the man, which is evident despite his shabby accoutrements. Nan is certainly curious about the apparent dedication (but to what?) that Leamus’s hardened demeanor belies. She herself is trying to bring justice to the world through her work with the communist party.

Nan is there to meet Leamus when he is released from jail. Once again she has cooked for him. He arrives late, but her patience is rewarded with the exquisite tenderness that is often the reserve of the hard cases.

Nan comes of age during the tribunal behind the Iron Curtain. Afterward, her failure to comprehend why she would be allowed to escape attests to a more honest view of reality than Leamus himself demonstrates in the wake of the tribunal. Leamus rationalizes their flight together, telling Nan it is just part of the dirty deal that served to “kill the Jew.” Notwithstanding Leamus’s dead-on explanation of the dirty world of international relations, explained at the human level, he misses the impending raw deal coming Nan’s way. No doubt Leamus’s heart is already breaking out of its professional quarantine. The veteran spy, on the verge of retiring, has already begun to embrace the human hopes and desires of someone in love, and this development within his heart blinds his gimlet-eye to the impending reality despite decades of intimacy with the spy game.

The scenes in the car with Leamus and Nan when they are escaping from East Germany are among the best Hollywood ever rolled a camera on. Leamus’s monologue, as he explains the sordid mess to Nan, is a cynical dissection of political intrigue and a moral vivisection of our hypocritical Western society. Indeed, Burton’s scathing soliloquy in the car with Bloom rivals Brandon’s often cited “coulda been a contender” scene in “On The Waterfront.”

In many scenes throughout “The Spy Who Came In from The Cold,” director Martin Ritt relies on the facial expressions of his actors to communicate his message. While “Control” (Cyril Cusack) pulls the strings with the insouciance of the upper class, it is the very finality and ruthlessness of the game that guarantees Control his job security. Elsewhere, we see resignation on the sad face of the old queer, when he attempts to salvage a modicum of dignity in a scene at a cabaret where a nearly naked woman dances sensuously in the background, as if to mock the man and negate his deepest needs. At the tribunal in East Germany, Mundt (Peter van Eyck) looks with forced disdain at Leamus; deep down, Mundt’s Teutonic pride has been hurt by the need for this charade. Nan faces the tribunal with reserves of strength nourished by the naive faith of an innocent in love, as if channeling Joan of Arc before her inquisitors.

In the final frames, Leamus forsakes the cruel world for a lost love, after glaring with new found contempt at Smiley, whose offer of salvation has ultimately revealed itself to be just one more betrayal.

Monday, August 13, 2012

East Berlin Blues

It was a sunny spring day in 1976. I was crossing from West Berlin to East Berlin to visit that part of the famous metropolis ruled at the time by the Soviet Union. The East German border police at Checkpoint Charlie singled me out for special treatment.

I was taken from the line of tourists and brought into a small room where an older officer, holding my American passport, made me sit at a small white table and empty the contents of my pockets onto it. The officer began to interrogate me while a young soldier watched dutifully.

Checkpoint Charlie in bygone Berlin (web photo)

The officer noticed my West German visa. "What do you do?" he asked in a friendly enough manner.

"I am a student at the University of Hamburg," I told him.

"Why aren't you carrying any money?" It was a fair question, and I really can't remember how that situation had come about, except that I was traveling with my girlfriend and she was holding whatever meager vacation funds we had pooled together for the trip by car from Hamburg.

"My girl has money, and if I'm good she buys me things," I smart-alecked.

Confident that totalitarian hijinks could not touch me, I quipped further, "Looking for drugs?" I figured they must have pegged me as a hippie because of my shaggy hair and beard and the bell-bottoms and colorful shirt I was wearing. There was nothing colorful about East Germany, a sad world of browns and greys to anyone coming there from the West.

"Not drugs. We are searching for explosives," the officer said and I immediately realized this was no game.

A harsh look darkened the East German's countenance. His eyes narrowed. He asked me where I was going.

"East Berlin," I said.

"No," he corrected me with the sternness of a proverbial Prussian schoolmaster. "It is called Berlin, capital of the German Democratic Republic."

"Yeah, well, I'm just going to East Berlin for the day," I repeated.

"You are in college," he appealed to me, even as his voice became hard-edged. "You want to be an educated man. It is called Berlin, capital of the German Democratic Republic. Now repeat that," he snapped.

There I was, free to travel back and forth across the Iron Curtain, relying for protection on that talismanic travel document that was the U.S. passport in the 1970s. But the people of Eastern Europe were denied such basic freedom. The conditions were so lousy in East Berlin that the Soviets built the wall — beginning 51 years ago today — to keep the people from fleeing. And before it was finally torn down in 1989, eager East German border guards killed well over 100 persons who tried to scale it.

The young guard who stood in the room with us that day looked on silently wearing a poker face. He was closer to my age, but I would get no sympathy from him. The officer still held my passport. Everything else I had brought with me lay on the tabletop. I was on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall in the back room of a police station in a totalitarian nation.

Now the officer was ordering me again, "Say it! Berlin, capital of the German Democratic Republic." It was a bum rush attempt at minor indoctrination, and I was not about to capitulate.

"Where I come from, we call it East Berlin," I told him in no-nonsense tones, any shred of flippancy gone from my voice. When it came down to it, I was every bit as serious as he was. I knew the score and I detested it viscerally. And I was damned sure no East German border guard was going to bully me.

"Take your belongings and leave," he said, slapping my passport on the table.

That staggered me. I had been quite certain my refusal would only provoke real unpleasantness.

"That's it?" I said unable to keep from expressing my surprise.

"Oh, you want more?" He sounded pleased at the prospect.

But I was already putting stuff back in my pockets and had grabbed my passport.

"No. No more," I allowed. The officer took that as his victory, nodded to the soldier and turned away. I was escorted out of the room through some narrow hall and pushed out a back door, down a few steps onto a stone pavement. I saw my girlfriend standing in the sunlight, which like the birds that flew around Berlin didn't care the least about West and East. I had been detained for half an hour.

"What happened to you?" she asked. I held her tight. "Wait'll I tell you."

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Hammer Down in Riverhead

Even the track dirt at Riverhead Raceway on Long Island seems to squirm on a summer Sunday as some 100 Enduro Class cars position for the start of the feature race – a 100-lap rough ride for those determined drivers and their gritty machines.

When you watch the Enduros on a glaring afternoon, they appear to be mosaics of myriad nicks and half-hammered-out dents from perhaps one thousand past laps on that crowded high-banked oval. Their body panels are highlighted by garish paint jobs while many cars sport the names of loved ones and sponsors in trailing-off scrawls as if spray-painted by strung-out graffiti artists.

By contrast, the Modified and Late Model Class cars sparkle like jewelry under the weak lights as they race on Saturday nights. To motorheads, those engines sound like a three tenors concert, and with their speed – sub 12-second time trial laps – and maneuverability they approach a mechanical ideal of beauty in motion on the short track that the other classes that race at Riverhead – Blunderbust, Charger, Legend and Super Pro Truck – cannot hope to match.

As for the Enduros, those large stock cars may be packed three wide over the entire back stretch at the start of a race. While scorers and track stewards ready for the event, impatient drivers lean on their horns like selfish commuters caught in a closed-circuit rush hour. Engines are gunned while fans hunker in the grandstands, sprawl at umbrellaed tables or lounge just beyond the fence in their own folding lawn chairs – all eager for the hypnosis of the oval. When the clock does finally start, the flagman flourishes the green in an energetic and intricate motion, like a depraved maestro exhorting his orchestra to sublime discord.

Now the track dust swirls. The first rows of cars roar down the stretch to arrive at the back of the pack before those racers in last position have even budged. Some cars dip into the infield in the center of the oval to lap those stuck in traffic. Soon thick exhaust mixes with acrid radiator steam as the first victims of mechanical stress, misjudgment or bad luck limp out of the steel maelstrom and come to rest in the infield. The herd thins. On the short oval the Enduro cars spend half the race turning, and drivers repeatedly straighten their wheels and mash their accelerators to the floor, barreling ahead in shuddering roll cages into the next turn until the curving pavement slips the soft grip of their xylene-soaked tires. Cars spin out, tires jump off axles, radiators explode, and stranded, angry drivers resist the urge to punch and strangle their competitors – or not.

With each lap more debris litters the track. Bumpers tumble like Olympic gymnasts. Automotive parts, like metal hearts and livers, are blown out of the madly howling machines on their bum rush around the track’s pitiless surface to the delirium of the fans, by now dizzied from a surfeit of stimuli.

Despite the massive assault on the senses and the collateral deprivation of serenity produced by Enduro cars speeding around the track like cratered moons hurtling through the polluted skies of a doomed planet, this breakneck bedlam is but the low-rent tip of a costly, grease-stained iceberg.

In the pit area, crews and drivers in the various classes tweak their cars, which they have been readying all week. In some pits men use hydraulics to lower a $50,000 Modified from the upper deck of a $100,000 trailer. Next door, a solitary driver might be his own pit crew and major sponsor.

New tires from the local tread merchant are mounted each week, that is, if the racing team has an extra $500 to $700 on its money roll or is lucky enough to have a top sponsor. But whether new or somewhat used, all tires are staggered for the counterclockwise circuit, and complicated car weight percentages are adjusted for maximum handling advantage. Jaded and practical, the crews try out tricks of the trade and thrive on rulebook gray areas, justifying each maneuver with the motto that made America great: “It ain’t cheatin’ till you get caught.”

Cars run time trials to determine pole position, “hot laps” for a chance to test adjustments under race conditions, heats to qualify and of course the feature race for each class. In addition, depending on the program, there might be a school bus demolition derby, figure 8 race, spectator drag races or a sideshow like Airplane Freddy, a maniac from the Midwest who has a truck-mounted jet airplane engine that he uses as a giant blowtorch to melt whole cars.

Another popular event is the rollover contest, where drivers launch their cars over a ramp then wedge themselves in place for the topsy-turvy ride, competing to see who can flip a car the most times, trying to break the unofficial track record of 5 ½ rollovers.

Most of the racers come from around the Island but on two weekends each summer, when Riverhead hosts a Featherlite Modified Tour event, racing teams from Virginia, Pennsylvania and Connecticut are common at the raceway as they pursue point totals and the season championship.

There is another universe beyond the guardrails and walls, and it teems with creatures as bizarre as in a Star Wars bar. Children hawk cotton candy behind the bleachers. Grizzled men in the stands taunt the tanned and tattooed young women promenading in blue jeans. Elsewhere families picnic in the dirt and a large man stands aloof, wearing a Prussian helmet with a day-glo orange mini traffic cone for a spike, keeping one eye on the action and one hand on a beverage.

Back at the pits, “it’s just another day in the dirt hole,” as one laconic mechanic sighed. Welders are still tacking on bumpers, while sponsors schmooze and engine builders promise to make winners out of losers. Photographs and posters to be autographed are readied for the fans who will be admitted into the pits following the final race of the night, when that sprawl of cars and trailers is transformed from open air garage to asphalt picnic. It is then that toolboxes are closed and coolers opened. Barbeques and blenders replace air tanks, while pop tunes from sophisticated sound systems fill the aural void left by the cooling motors. Trophies are displayed and winners stroll to the payout window to collect what seem insultingly small cash awards, when you factor in the price of this passion in dollars, sweat, disappointment and risk.

The party continues until the last steward shuts off the lights, plunging the hardcore into darkness, under cover of which they ride out onto the unromanticized highways of Long Island, abandoning until the following weekend, Riverhead Raceway, the Island’s last surviving oval and only metro-area NASCAR stock car track, and leaving to stand guard alone over this desolation, Big Chief, perhaps the ultimate icon of survival, dignified in his muteness despite the devil’s red they painted him and the Sieg Heil salute they gave him for all eternity – if there is an eternity.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The old man and the tree

Recently I climbed the ladder with the 14” McCulloch and took down a big, dead limb from a tree in the yard. I had stared at it long from the ground from several angles and decided it was doable. This after staring at it on a previous day and deciding it was too much for the old man I have become. But I kept returning to that gnarled and diseased trunk and staring up at that limb—my own white whale.

In the rafters of the garage I found a ladder. I looked at it for some minutes wondering if I could dislodge it and remove it from the garage on my own. So circumspect have I become in the matter of physical effort and inanimate objects. I reached up and grabbed a line attached to the ladder and pulled the thing toward me. It came down swiftly and I was grateful it was fashioned of a lightweight alloy. I brought it out to the yard and used it to reach some small broken branches that were caught in the boughs of another tree and remove them.

That was a couple of days ago. Yesterday I grabbed the ladder from where I had placed it outside, alongside the back of the garage. I carried it to the tree and leaned it against the diseased trunk. I climbed the ladder and observed the limb. It had a diameter of at least 20 inches close to the trunk and extended outward nearly horizontal at least 20 feet. I climbed back down and went in the house. Later I returned to the base of the ladder and grabbed it as if to move it. I had no thoughts in my mind as to what I was doing. I wasn’t climbing it again empty-handed. Was I going to carry the ladder back to the garage? The ladder was firmly in place. That info was communicated to me through my hands and arms as I stood toe to toe with the metal ladder and grabbed it like you might grab a close friend’s shoulders at a moment of intense grief or pain. That set me in motion. I walked to the garage and grabbed the 14” McCulloch off the shelf and took the 40:1 gas mixture in the plastic Arnold Palmer iced tea container. As I carried them out to the gnarled tree I wondered if the whole thing was folly.

I had run the chainsaw quite a bit in the days following Tropical Storm Irene and had acquired a level of confidence regarding its use. But that was on the ground. This would be 15 feet in the air. If the limb fell unexpectedly toward the ladder it could conceivably knock it over, however unlikely. Still it could cause me to lose balance. The saw would automatically shut off but if I fell I would surely at least sprain and probably break an ankle or worse. The ground below was a patchwork of tree roots. I could conk myself on the head (knock some sense into it?). “I could break my back,” I thought, then, “O stop, you are at most risking a sprained ankle,” which in my case could be grave, having no medical insurance and living alone. I checked the McCulloch for gas. It had enough. I looked up again at the bough I was obsessed with bringing down. I believed the ladder was well positioned—close enough for me to lean over the limb and do the job, far enough to escape the falling wood. I primed the saw and pulled the cord. It started easily as if Fate were greasing the skids for my folly.

The chain was somewhat loose but looked OK when running. Earlier I had worried about the loose chain. A guy told me that a loose chain could slip off the blade or break. I imagined the sharp metal chain whipping me across the face. I could lose an eye and my good looks. As I climbed the ladder with the growling McCulloch in my right hand, I was wearing a gray T-shirt, shorts and my work boots, my only concession to the chore at hand. No cap. No protective eyewear.

The climbing was inexorable. Once in place at the top I leaned out and placed the saw beneath the limb about two and a half feet from the trunk and carved upward making a narrow gash an inch or two deep. Then I got to work on the topside of the limb. I bore down with the 14” McCulloch. At first the saw seemed overmatched and I recalled the long bar of the professional chainsaw the licensed tree guy had used at a neighbor’s after Irene. But there was no turning back. I was a quarter of the way through. I couldn’t stop. How could I leave a semi-sawed-through limb of that size up in the air above our heads. As it was I steeled myself for its falling. I didn’t know when its weight would pull it down but the last thing I wanted was to be startled and to react instinctively and possibly lose balance and fall.

I was one third of the way through now. If it began to fall unexpectedly toward me I would toss the saw and hug the ladder and swing my legs out of the way—hopefully in time. I was nearly through. Surely the chainsaw must be close to the precut gash below? I was expecting the deep crackling of a limb being broken off during a storm. I put some ass into it and the McCulloch bit deeper. Minutes passed. The saw was nearly through. At one point the limb gave a soft crunch and the once mighty bough broke off and fell away smoothly to the lawn below, exactly where I intended it to land. I shut down the McCulloch and backed down the ladder.

After a brief rest inside the house I returned, buoyed by manly confidence, to ‘limb’ and ‘buck’ the bough, which I believe means saw it into fireplace-length pieces, and add it all to the woodpile. Thank God the woodpile was only steps away!

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Perfect World

In a perfect world
my feet
would not hang
over the edge
of the bed
like the head
of a man
in the guillotine,
my toes
pointing downward
like his face
to outrace
the blade
into the basket.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Bloodless beetle

Your thumb sits
on this page like a bloodless beetle.
Mouth my words.
I don’t know their value.
You place the weights on the scale.
Here, tell me the meaning, here.
Speak these lines,
explain their rhythms, their depths.
I need to hear it from you.

I have written this poem
but I have completed nothing.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

My Father's Father

It was on this day in 1923 that my father was born. This evening much of the family will gather at my brother's house in Michigan to celebrate Dad's 89th birthday. Four generations of family will be represented.

The blessed event whose anniversary is being feted took place in a small village in rural Lower Bavaria. It was the year of Germany's hyper-inflation. My paternal grandfather--and family patriarch until his death in 1987--used to tell us how workers would be paid twice daily, at lunch and at quitting time. Woe to the worker who failed to purchase necessities with that noonday pay before returning to the job because by day's end it would have already lost much of its value.

It was in that same year of 1923 that my grandfather left Bavaria and came to America. Like so many immigrants, Grandpa passed through Ellis Island, although my father has told me that my grandfather was no fan of that place because of the abuse he witnessed there. Grandpa's brother, so the story goes, was rejected due to poor eyesight and ended up in Argentina.

Grandpa once told me he arrived in America and made his way to Pittsburgh to work in the steel mills. At the time there were no jobs so he jumped on a freight train and rode the rails westward. He said the bulls threw him off the train in Toledo, Ohio, and that's how he came to settle there. Apparently, that story is apocryphal, the kind of tall tale you wow young children with. But I have always liked it and prefer not to challenge its veracity.

Dad with two great-granddaughters at his 89th birthday party.

As a high school student I studied for one year at a school in Austria and learned the German language. Visiting relatives in Bavaria when the school year was over I was told my grandparents were arriving in Munich the next day. When we met at the airport they spoke German. I was astonished. Chalk it up to a childlike naivete, or just a general lack of common sense on my part, a deficiency I have to this day been unable to remedy, at least according to my dad. In my defense at the time, I had in all my 17 years never heard my grandparents speak German. They always spoke English as far as I knew. They had a slight accent, but so did my maternal grandparents. They were from Poland and Switzerland but in my adolescent analysis I just figured you gradually developed an accent as you went through life accumulating experience. It never occurred to me people spoke with an accent because they were speaking a second language.

After I recovered from the initial shock I found it rewarding to converse with my grandparents in their mother tongue. I believe my grandparents were also pleased I had learned German, although I can't recall them ever expressing such a sentiment outright. I do believe my grandfather was deeply dismayed when I returned to Europe after graduating college. At the time I considered moving there indefinitely. I think he took that as a personal affront after all the incredible sacrifices he had made to bring his family to America. He had made the desperate trip in 1923 and had found work in a strange land, learned the language and saved money for several years before being able to pay for the passages of his wife and two young children, including my father.

Of course one consequence of Grandpa's coming to America which is impossible to overlook is that my father eventually grew up to become a member of what has been called the greatest generation. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy during WWII and served in the Pacific. Had my father grown up in Germany, well, that alternate history is unthinkable.

Speaking with Grandpa and Grandma in German seemed to open them up to stories of their youth in Bavaria. I was enthralled by those glimpses of their childhood and I continue to cherish them. They alone provide reward enough for having learned the German language.

Before I go to my brother's house this evening for my father's 89th birthday party, let me share one of Grandpa's stories.

During WWI my grandfather was too young to be conscripted. Two older brothers fought and fell on the eastern front. But he remained on the farm in Lower Bavaria, where Russian POWs were put to use working the land. My grandfather oversaw a group of those men and a natural bond developed. The Russians taught Grandpa some of their language, including "piosh," the word for dog. For his part, my grandfather would sometimes supply the Russians with vodka, which was forbidden them by the local authorities.

One day, returning from the fields with the Russian POWs, their group was stopped by local police. My grandfather, about 14 years old at the time, watched as the officers checked the men's papers and the captain demanded to know how to say his official rank in Russian. One of the POWs replied with a word familiar to my grandfather. When the police captain beat his chest and proudly proclaimed, "I am piosh," my grandfather nearly busted a gut trying not to laugh at this spectacle of a fool.