Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Hollywood - Trouble in Paradise

"Hollywood" - No single word conjures such a sparkling picture of joy and untrammeled success.  True, much of that has always been a carefully crafted myth, much like Camelot, but none-the-less that myth has had long power over the world's collective imagination.  How shocking then to have heard recently from the mouths of two of Hollywood's grandees -- Steven Spielberg and George Lucas -- that "Hollywood" -- that is the American Film Industry -- was about to face "an implosion." What in heaven's name were they talking about?

To give any meaningful answer to that question we first must understand a little about what "Hollywood" means in the context, not of film art but of the film business, for that is really what Hollywood represents.

The motion picture business got its start in a small way back in the 1890s.  Up until that time, before the advent of motion pictures, recorded sound,  radio or television, public performance required live actors and musicians. Larger cities had theaters for live shows and burlesque and concert halls of various sizes and types for live music, but smaller cities and towns often had little public entertainment at all apart from the occasional traveling show or a traveling circus. No wonder an announcement that "The circus is coming to town!" raised such excitement.

Motion pictures -- "movies" -- changed all that. Suddenly "moving pictures shows" started appearing all over the country and small movie production companies were created here there and everywhere to fill the need.

In time the motion picture business in America became centered in California where the mild climate, day after day of dependable sunshine and abundant available space created together the perfect motion picture making environment.  And in an amazingly short time the once many small movie production companies were replaced by a few large ones -- companies that owned and/or controlled every aspect of the motion picture business. The had the needed studios, the "back lots"of ready sets including all sorts of venues (Western towns, small town America, city streets, jungles etc.)  And they had under contract all the talent needed to produce the films -- the  writers, directors, technical people and actors.  More than that the owned many of the movie theaters -- theaters that showed only motion pictures produced by the owning studio -- and had contracts with the rest that required them to buy the projection rights for films in "blocks" -- typically blocks of five films -- only one of which might have a large likelihood of success.

During the time when this "Studio System" reigned -- often referred to as "Hollywood's Golden Age -- hundreds and hundreds of films were made, distributed and shown to the public every year.

Among them were many "greats."  The year of 1939 - perhaps the high point of what we think of as "Hollywood" -- saw the production and distribution of such films as "The Wizard of Oz," "Gone With the Wind," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "Gunga Din," "Stagecoach" "Destry Rides Again," "Ninotchka" and "Goodbye Mr. Chips." All that in just one year!

But lots and lots of junk films were made that year too -- hundreds of them --  films that would never had found a viewing audience if not for the block contracts imposed by the studio system.

Then, starting in 1948, the government got involved and the studio system was step-by-step put out of business. ("For the good of the people" of course. For the good of the people!)

In very simple terms what happened was this: The Federal Government decided that it was an unfair business practice for the major film companies ("The Studios") to own both the means of production and the means of displaying motion pictures. 

The whole affair was, as are all things in "big business" and government, very complex, but simplified we can compare it to the government deciding that it is unfair for a  restaurant to have ownership of both the kitchen where food is prepared and the seating area where the food is served to the customer. Better (only government could think so!) would be for restaurants to be required to serve food prepared by someone other than themselves, and for chefs to be required to find some food serving establishment, somewhere else, to sell what they created in their kitchen.

How well do you think that would work?

In any case with the ending of the Studio System the big name studios that we think of when we think "Hollywood" became mere shells.  Some for a time continued to actually produce films, but without the assured returns neccasary to contract writers, directors, actors -- and especially "stars" --  the costs of doing so went up and up and this without any assurance that a given movie, once made, would actually be shown in enough theaters to recoup the production and distribution costs, much less make a profit.

To counter this the entire movie industry was forced to change. Instead of mass producing hundreds and hundreds of films "The Studios" (now in truth often merely serving as distributors) started concentrating on BIG films with BIG stars that had to attract a BIG audience.  Out went the small, low-budget drama, in came the blockbuster with "a cast of thousands"  (or, more recently, a lot of fancy and costly digital effects).

And what does one need to do to attract a BIG audience?  Study demographics and aim those high-budget extravaganzas at them. And in today's world that means teenagers and twenty-somethings. And that means... ach! ... mostly comic book type stories with lots and lots of "superheros."

More than that it means tailoring the film itself -- even its name -- to bring in the biggest possible audience.  Thus even a film about a sci-fi here such as Edgar Rice Burroughs'  John Carter can't go by the name of the book upon which the movie is based. After all, how many boys would be attracted to a film called "A Princess of Mars"?  Nor dare they even call it "John Carter on Mars" -- for such a title might not draw in enough teenage girls.  No, instead the film had to be called just "John Carter" and as such it attracted almost no one. -And that after Disney Studios had spent so much money producing, advertising and distributing the film that they'd have had to bring in box office receipts of at 600 million dollars just to break even.

The failure of  last year's "John Carter" and its 160 million dollar loss was the harbinger of this year's multi-film bust. A year that has brought one failure after another of films whose production costs alone (never mind advertising and distribution costs) exceeded 250 million dollars apiece.

So far this summer such 'bombs' include "The Lone Ranger" (despite its starring Johnny Depp), "White House Down," "After Earth" (starring the normally reliable screen draw Will Smith), and nearly a half dozen others.

Obviously the film industry cannot survive suffering loss after such loss, but Steven Spielberg's warning of an "Implosion" reflected more -- the other side of that same coin -- the inability of even a name director such as himself to make a movie and see it distributed that was about something other than teen comic book style fantasies.

In 2012 Steven Spielberg had devoted his immense talent to a project that should have, by any reasonable standards, promised of huge success. That film was "Lincoln." 

"Lincoln" had (or should have had) everything going for it. It was a film about a man who has for years been one of the nation's greatest real-life heroes. It dealt with the truly dramatic choice between the continuation of slavery or the advent of freedom and eventual equality for all Americans, and dramatically showed what it took for this truly great leader of men to change the course of modern history.  More than thet It was directed by one of the truly great modern film directors -- one that has had repeated box office hits -- and it starred one of the today's truly great film actors, Daniel Day-Lewis.

But for all this Spielberg had trouble getting it shown in theaters.  Indeed he says that it very nearly went directly to HBO!

If a film by Steven Spielberg about Abraham Lincoln can't get shown in theaters then what is the future of American film?  Just more superhero flops?  Or will the business become one of only digitally produced family cartoons and made on the cheap teen gross-out comedies?

If the past is any guide Hollywood -- the American Film Industry -- will not die. No, it will once again find a new road. It will change. 

But for now there truly is trouble in paradise.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Art for Art's Sake?

What is the value of art? Some esteem it as gold, others as paper, others yet as something of less value yet. "What good is art?" they ask, "what has art ever accomplished?"

I suppose the best answer to this later expression is to answer the question with a question. "Why is anything worth accomplishing?" After all, nothing man does truly lasts. And yet despite this eternity is, as the bible say, in ours hearts - the need to understand and feel connected to the past and the need to feel we are making some contribution to the future. For many art -- its study, its creation, and its appreciation, is the greatest tool (apart, perhaps, from family) in our accomplishing this.

"Art," it has been said, "is in the eyes of the beholder."  And this is true.  Time, experience, culture and community  all apprise our judgement of art -- what it is and how it is to be valued. And some appreciation of art is common to all societies of men.  As novelist Jane Austen wittingly commented on one such - the art of dance.

Sir William: “Do you dance, Mr. Darcy?"
Darcy: "Not if I can help it!"
Sir William:  There is nothing like dancing,..  I consider it as one of the first refinements of polished societies."
Mr. Darcy: "Certainly, sir; and it has the advantage also of being in vogue amongst the less polished societies of the world; every savage can dance.”

Point, set and match to Mr. Darcy.

Yet even if we agree that "art" itself is deemed of some universal value, we still may disagree on what exactly "art" is.

Are folks arts - and by this I mean those created by average, everyday, people the equal of "Fine Art" - that which is created by the especially gifted and talented; that which is based on study and thought more than a mere outpouring of human feeling?

For many years folk arts were, from today's standpoint, undervalued.  In part this is because in most societies the common man himself was, by today's standards, undervalued.  The world, in these earlier appraisals, belonged to the titled few.  And in this world view art was to be created  by them, or at least for them and them alone. 

This changed in part during the so-called Age of Enlightenment, but it is still not a settled affair. Nor, in my judgement, should it be. The principle of equality under law - that all men are created equal in their natural right to pursue life, liberty and their own happiness - this I think worthy of universal esteem. But the idea that all men's minds are equal and that thus all their creations are of equal worth - this I do not believe holds up to thoughtful scrutiny.

A favorite story of mine -- one that captures the changes in thinking that comprised the Age of Enlightenment -- concerns a man who in my eyes has few peers among great artists - the composer and musician Beethoven.

Beethoven was a man of common birth and equaly common manners. He was  seen by his "betters" as coarse and brusque. But he insisted that his real worth -- his "nobility" as it were -- was not to be judged upon such shallow grounds.

The story goes that once, when walking with his friend, the esteemed writer and thinker, Goethe, a nobleman passed by. Goethe bowed, as was expected in their society. Beethoven did not. When questioned by his somewhat shocked friend Beethoven is said to have responded "My nobility is here" as he pointed to his head.

I'd argue that his music -- his "art" -- proved him correct. Who was that "nobleman" to whom Beethoven had been expected by both law and custom to bow?  Is he remembered for anything at all? What, I wonder, if anything did he do with his life? What, if anything, did he pass on to posterity?

Today few in our society would argue with Beethoven's right to insist on his own worth. But we do argue with his the basis on which he made his judgment: The worth of his creative genius.

Is Beethoven's "art" really "greater" than that of an everyday folk artist?

This is not a small and unimportant question. At least not to me. And in this I know that I am not at all attuned with our times.

Not that modern society truly believes in "equality." No, what it assumes is that each of us is somehow obligated to accept and call "good" what our society accepts as such.  In the visual arts this includes paintings where the paint has been simply thrown at a canvas without forethought or design, coarse renderings of common objects such as soup cans and -- most of all -- of anything that shows the spirit of sneering at the values upon which western society was built.

In music this means acclaiming the greatness of songs without melody or harmony and lyrics that are little more than adolescent prattling.

In dance -- an art form to which I am sadly virtually blind -- it seems to mean equating gyration with carefully thought through movement requiring equal measures of grace and control.

I personally value art too highly to accept any of these common points of view.  And this is nothing new for me. Even as a student in my late teens and very early twenties I infuriated some of my teachers at the N.Y. School of Visual Arts by expressing similarly outrageous views.

Arts for arts sake?  Yes.  But more important art for our sakes. For the sake of values, meaning and the passing on of the best of man's past and present to an increasingly uncertain future.

Monday, July 29, 2013


"An object in motion stays in motion until acted upon by an outside force. An object at rest stays at rest until acted upon by an outside force."  
-Newton's First Law of Motion

Basic science that. As true now as the day it was first put to paper.  In fact it was just as true before it was put paper.  Scientific principles don't start to exist when man discovers them, nor do that cease to be true just because he ignores them. Sorry, but no matter how strong our belief system may be, how persuasive to others our argument are, we just don't matter all that much. Except, of course, to ourselves.

The average eight year old toe-headed freckle-faced boy understands Newton's law, even if he can't quote it.  He watches a pitched ball reverse course when struck by a bat. He sees it climb higher ever higher into the sky, and then tries to apply that law as he somehow naturally has come to understand it, as best as his skill allows him, to place himself right under the ball when it returns to earth.

The above was a gift I, by the way, entirely lacked. Perhaps it my was my lack of freckles? In any case what is true is true. The immutable laws of the universe apply whether we like them or not.

An object will only get into motion when an outside force is applied to it. That's the law. Wishful thinking will do nothing to change it. Neither will the most deeply held political conviction.  And that same object will continue in motion only until something start to slow it down. 

Gravity for instance. And resistance from the air. Until such forces work their inextricable work that object -- be it a ball or whatever -- it will continue its upward arch and then, with time, its upward flight will get slower, and slower, and slower. Then gravity will have its way and down it will come, be it into a kid's catchers mitt, or onto the muddy earth. Thud.

This law applies to people as well. With people (and peoples) upward momentum comes from a force being applied, not from wishful thinking, not from a political philosophy. Once such force has been applied the upward motion will naturally continue for a time but without new energy being applied it will bit by bit slow down, and a return to earth will follow as surely as did with that baseball.

Wealth, be it large or small, is created that selfsame way:  A force is applied. Upward motion is created. But only for a time.

The great families of industry and commerce (as well as the great nations of industry of commerce) all had their start in this same way.  Some antecedent applied himself to the ball and put great energy into it. If that energy was great enough entire generations could go along for the ride, sailing, seemingly higher and higher, perhaps taking but scant note that their upward motion was slowing, their upward arch flattening, until the fall began. Then later, if we were to look at them from above, we'd see them doing something not unlike a group of eight year olds: Crowding around a landing zone, crying out "I've got it!"  "No, I do!" "No, it's mine, it's mine!"

That is when the members of such families start to appear on TV, in tweets and in the supermarket tabloids, calling attention to themselves as their real (and imagined forever lasting) fortunes pass away, crying out for shame but with no shame. "Me!" "Me!" "I've got it! I've got it! Look at me!"  Until in time they have nothing left at all, not even a good name. Then they are forgotten.

The same can be, and often has been, true for entire nations.  At one point in time great exertion is put forth. Wealth, power and prestige is created. Then the exertion begins to trickle off and the wealth, power and prestige starts to dissipate.

That is pretty much where we are in America today. The great exertion of our parents and grandparents created enormous upward movement. Great wealth was created. So was a measure of prestige and power.  But then the exertion stopped. No - more that that - it became something  to ridicule and disdain. And then, the laws of the universe being what they are, that upward movement was lost. Stasis came and lasted but a cosmic moment - a generation. And then the quickly accelerating downward flight began.

Look around today and what do we see? The various groups that make up our society, each with a spokesman or three, fighting and arguing for what's left of that wealth. Each crying out like eight year olds --  "It's mine!" "No, it's mine!"  "Get out of my way!" No, not you, Me!  I've got it!"

And then, alas, will come the thud.

What is particularly sad is that each of the arguments heard -- the ones that allows each group's spokespeople to stand under the ball shouting "It's ours!" has some truth to it.

Workers did create the wealth, and in many cases, yes, they were underpaid. Where did their share go? Who took it? 

Families of the great industrialists can truly say "Our grandfather built that. It's rightfully ours!" And you know what? They did.

Others too have their fair claim. "My forebears did all the work -- furrowing the fields, harvesting the crops. They were slaves and they never got their fair share."

But all those arguments -- as true as they may be -- are in vein. For none of them apply energy to the ball. Thus none can stop it from falling. 

Political feelings and philosophy won't do it. Not even the most honestly thought through. Nor, alas, will even the most just complaints.

Wealth, prestige and power is still being created, but not by the whiners; not by those gathering around in hope of catching a falling ball.  Where it is being created is elsewhere on the field, by players hitting the ball anew. By those following the immutable law of the universe.

"An object at rest stays at rest until acted upon by an outside force."

Newton was right.  The universe with its immutable laws wins always. The question is will we?

That's a matter of momentum.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Truly "This 'n' That'

It's Saturday! Woohoo! Jan's home! So this morning I'll just share some quick, short, thoughts on a few subjects that I'll likely have more to say on in the days ahead.

There has been some noise lately that the film business is near death. The failure of one high-budget "tent pole" (who coins these names and phrases?) picture after another is going to, we are being told, kill it. Don't believe it. What is dieing is a tired old model of film making. A new one will soon replace it. 

This has happened before and will happen again. Somewhere in the wings a new talent with a new film vision is awaiting to arise. It will be exciting to see who he or she is and what they create.

* * * * *

The same thing happened to rock and roll.  

Once the music industry realized there was a fortune to be made in marketing  Elvis Presley, Jean Vincent, Buddy Holly and the like they for a  time filled the airwaves with teen idols of their own making. The kids bought their records but of course the real energy of RnR was not there and the kids knew it. 

In December of 1963 the number one hit song in the entire country was a sweet little ditty called "Dominique" recorded by "The Singing Nun." (I kid you not!) The American music industry officially announced to the world that the whole RnR thing was "over." 

One month later an obscure British band with the unlikely name "The Beatles" released a record in America called "I Want to Hold Your Hand."  The rest, as they say, is history.

* * * * *

On politics...  Right before the the start of the big 4th of July weekend an assistant secretary for the IRS posted on a small government website that the Obamacare requirement that businesses insure their workers was being delayed for a full year. The Obama administration and the bureaucracy says this is no big deal and assure us it is being done merely for 'quality assurance.'  That is bunk.  If it were so they'd have announced it publicly with fanfare.

Don't look to the so-called opposition to really do much about this except make noise. They, too, get their jonesies with increased Federal power. If anyone is going to look out for the great "us" it'll likely have to be on the local level

That all this is happening is really our fault - We the People that is.  After all, we elected these schlubs!

* * * * *

Throughout history more damage has  been done -- more people abused, tortured, jailed and killed -- by "do gooders" than by those who intentionally meant to do harm.  Want proof?   Nazism's hateful death toll world-wide is said to be a horrific 21 million people.  Communism, OTOH, with it's utopian "To each according to his need, from each according to his ability" promises killed roughly 94 million people. 

And on that note let me end today's TnT blog with an old joke that I just recently heard...

Fidel Castro was giving one off his interminably long speeches to a crowd in a Havana stadium. Suddenly from the crowd was heard the cry "Peanuts! Popcorn! Cracker Jacks!." Castro stopped speaking for a moment and looked around, and then went back to his speech.  Again the cry went out from somewhere in the crowd
"Peanuts! Popcorn! Cracker Jacks!." Castro again stopped speaking. this time for a bit longer while he looked to his security people, and then went back to his speech."  Once more the cry came out from somewhere in the crowd "Peanuts! Popcorn! Cracker Jacks!."   This time Castro stopped his prepared comments completely, peered at the crowd, and angrily said "When I find out who is saying that I am going to personally kick him all the way to Miami!  All at once the entire crowd together cried out at the top of their lungs "Peanuts! Popcorn! Cracker Jacks!."


See you next week.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Coffee! Coffee! Coffee!

Okay, let's get this out right away: Today's blog is about drugs.  Well, a drug, anyway. Got a problem with that? Then move on.

That drug is coffee. Would the world as we know it even exist without it?  Some historians have argued "no" claiming that the  entire push towards freedom and universal rights got its start when thinkers couldn't keep their mouths shut because of what really amounted to coffee jitters. Wrote historian Mark Pendergrast...

"Coffee... makes people think. It sort of creates egalitarian places — coffeehouses where people can come together — and so the French Revolution and the American Revolution were planned in coffeehouses."
 "Coffee has a tendency to loosen people's imaginations ... and mouths."

To which I can only add "Yup."

This blog is, in part at least, a product of coffee.  

My own coffee ritual is quite simple really. I awake with the sun or slightly before, open my eyes, get out of bed and turn on the espresso machine.  Then I get back into bed and twenty minutes later I am ready to start my day. My Gaggia is by then hot and ready to go!

Fresh beans are added to the coffee grinder's hopper as needed, ground extra fine, dosed into the Gaggia's portafilter, tamped with a carefully practiced 30 lbs pressure, inserted into the machine, then a button is pressed and the music begins. The mind awakens.

Ah, life! Ah, bliss!

As it is for most people, coffee, for me, was an acquired taste. For that I thank a certain Mrs. Collins, my teacher of art history back in my freshman year at SVA. 

Twice a week I and some hundred or so other students filed into an archaic 19th century style amphitheater where for about an hour and a half we had to sit on hard wooden seats in a stifling environment viewing slides of the world's great art.

Its not that the lectures were boring mind you. They were certainly not! Mrs Collins knew her stuff and shared it with all the passion the subject deserved. But that room was heated to what felt to be about 99 degrees -- hotter still if you arrived a bit late and found yourself in one of the the upper rows of amphitheater seats.

What to do? How could I/we stay awake and give dear Mrs. Collins and her lovely slides the attention they so much deserved?  The answer was... coffee.

This was not the stuff I, or anyone (I hope!), drinks today. No, it was dark, bitter, stuff conjured up, as coffee often was back then in the U.S.A., in a device called a "perculator." Truly dreadful stuff. But it did have one thing going for it: It contained caffeine. Lots and lots of caffeine.

Five big spoonfuls of sugar and a heavy dose of cream made it barely tolerable. A cup or two of this stuff and I/we were ready for class.

* * * * *

Europeans even back then knew better. To them coffee making had become an art.  Beans were carefully aged and roasted, then ground fresh.  Brewing methods varied country by country, but whatever the method used it was never, ever, boiled as it was in a perculator. 

It was, I suppose not unexpectedly, in Italy that the art of coffee making reached its absolute zenith.

Back around the turn of the last century one Luigi Bezzera invented a machine that forced hot water through very fine-ground coffee beans under pressure. This, according to coffee historian
Mark Pendergrast, produced a “dark, rich, complex, concentrated, satiny” coffee with a "rich hazel-colored crema on top and an
overwhelming aroma.”

A short time later Achille Gaggia developed a spring-powered machine that pushed the hot water through the coffee by means of a piston positioned over a “portafilter."  Espresso, as we know it today, had been born.

My Gaggia Classic, like most modern espresso machines, works on this same principle. And
that “dark, rich, complex, concentrated, satiny” coffee with a "rich hazel-colored crema and an overwhelming aroma" is just what I look forward to each morning.  Grazie Italia!

* * * * *

Yes, coffee is a drug. And as such it must be used with care. Coffee addiction, as so many of us learn the hard way, is no pleasure. Nor are "the jitters" that come with a caffeine overdose.

But caffeine, the "drug" in coffee, like many "drugs," can actually be beneficial when used wisely and with moderation. Among its benefits, along with the societal ones mentioned earlier, are genuine, measurable, decreases in what statisticians call "all-cause mortality."  No, it doesn't prevent you from dieing -- overall mortality remains at 100% -- but it does make it a bit less likely you'll 'shuffle off this mortal coil' at any given age.

Several studies have found that those who drink three or more cups of coffee a day are significantly less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease later in life. That's a good thing. Coffee drinkers, too, have been found to be statistically less likely to develop Parkinson's disease or suffer from gall stones.
Coffee can also reduce the incidence of cirrhosis of the liver, reduce one's risk of type 2 diabetes, and lessen the risk of oral, esophageal, pharyngeal and liver cancer. 

No small advantages the above. But the biggest benefit of coffee is to the mind. For coffee, when drunk in moderation, stimulates thought. And to me at least thinking is what life is really all about.

Well that's it for this morning's blog.  I think it is time for my 2nd cup. The Gaggia is calling! :)

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Some Little Rays of Sunshine

When you're smilin' keep on smilin'
The whole world smiles with you
And when you're laughin' oh when you're laughin'
The sun comes shinin' through

Cut those words deep in stone. Make them into a monument -- perhaps a great stone arch. Place them at the entryway and portal to every American town and city.

First brought to the attention of the American people by the great Louis Armstrong, the words of "When You're Smiling", just as much as the Preamble to the Constitution and the speeches of Abraham Lincoln, express the philosophical underpinning that made this nation what it is.

A mere babe in arms can understand them.  Can we not, for instance, imagine an infant Al Sharpton beaming a great big smile at his mother and she reflexively responding "Oh, Al, you sweet little bundle of sunshine! How you brighten every day!"

Okay, perhaps not. Bad example. Sorry.

But historically such joy and optimism has been a part of the American character, and that was equally so in politics (on both the Left and the Right), popular culture, and our every day communal experiences. And most of all it was found in our homes.

Think back, if you are old enough to do so, to the main characters of the popular `50s and `early `60s television shows. Father Knows Best. Leave It To Beaver. Perry Mason. Rawhide. Star Trek. On every one of those shows the main character was an optimist.  A smiler. And yes, this was so --  indeed, especially so -- when problems mounted.

What about our politicians and leaders back then? Yes, the same was true there.

Take Ronald Reagan as an example. It is not hard to see, in our mind's eye, him smiling like that is it?  What about JFK? Certainly!

It is worth noting that Democratic Senator (and later Vice President and Presidential candidate) Hubert Humphrey's nickname was "The Happy Warrior."  How distinctly American!

But perhaps no one in the political sphere better represents 'the sun shining through' than

this nation's president during some our very darkest hours -- the Great Depression and WWII. Franklin Delano Roosevelt. An optimist always. A man of hope. A leader with a truly American spirit.

Yes, smiling, optimism, looking to the future with confidence even when times are tough, these are the qualities that made our nation great. They are among the essential American qualities. They are what, throughout our history, has separated us from all the other nations on the earth. And this was so in good times and bad.

Where is that spirit today?  Certainly it is not seen in the garrulous and often sneering President Obama.

Nancy Pelosi? Harry Reid? No, no optimistic smilers there. Nor, quite frankly, are those qualities seen in majority of the leaders on the right.

What, though, about in our own lives? We as citizens, in our homes, shops and offices? We as just people?

There we see it. No, not perhaps to the degree we saw it earlier. But in our personal lives -- in our homes, at work, amongst our family and our friends -- there the spirit of American optimism still reigns. There the smiles are to be see. Left or right. Black, brown or white.

Maybe, therefore, we -- the American people -- need to find new leaders for ourselves. Ones that truly represent what we are as a people. Men and women who share our character.

Maybe we need to create a new popular culture. One that does the same.

Maybe we need to tell all those people and the media, in no uncertain terms: "Stop tearing us down." "Stop separating us from one another." "Stop trying to destroy our hopes and our dreams."

And if we did these things, what would be the result?  On this I believe U.S. history, and the words of the song, agree.

When you're cryin' you bring on the rain
So stop that sighin' be happy again
keep on smilin Cause when you're smilin'
And the whole world smiles with you

* "When You're Smiling" - Words and music by Mark Fisher and Joe Goodwin, c1929

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Interests and Passions

It was one of the greatest and most important discoveries of my life, and I only learned it when I was already in my mid to late twenties.  This lesson changed the course of my life -- no more -- the very way I experience life -- as few other lessons have. And it concerned the theme of today's TNT blog: Interests and Passions. I learned it thus...

I was, as I wrote above, already well into my twenties. My life at the time, like most people's at that age, was comprised as much of ritual, habit and grind as anything else. A not quite yet budding career. Learning the ways of parenting. Finding my way as an adult. And doing all of this on very little money and, seemingly at least, with very little opportunity for growth and excitement. Then came the visit to the Carriage House.

The said Carriage House was at the Shelburne Museum in Shelbourne VT. The Carriage House was, as I remember, a large barn like structure filled with literally hundreds of old horse-drawn carriages. Hardly the 'stuff' it would seem to fire the imagination of this then young man. But it did. Oh, it did! And therein lies a story and the lesson.

I was visiting the museum with friends -- "older" friends -- that word in quotes because those "older" friends were then considerably younger than I am today. And one of these friends was a man of remarkable curiosity. He was a carpenter by trade, but inside was the spirit of a writer and a teacher. Everything, and I mean everything, around him grabbed his interest. So when we walked into that Carriage House we did not just walk through quickly, giving the myriads of carts

and carriages a cursory look -- something I would have done -- in and out in 7 minutes -- but instead stopped and looked carefully at each and every one.  There was a truly old man there -- a curator? a guard? whatever, who saw my friend's interest and came over. "If you have any questions about the carriages" he said, "do, please, feel free to ask."  And so my friend did. And what could have been a cursory pass through a museum exhibit became an hour plus long walk into a fascinating world that was completely unknown to me and until then seemingly uninteresting.  Carriage making. Carriage design. Life in the carriage era. And to my absolute surprise I found myself completely entranced.

Suspension systems? Oh yes, those old carriages had them. And some were quite ingenious.  Weather protection?. Comfort?  How did 'my lady' get relief on a long trip where there were no rest stops?  Again there was an answer - a fascinating one - and it was right there, hidden under 'my lady's' plush leather seat - a toilet, dropable blinds for privacy, and a 'dump system' that would be appreciated by the owner of any modern RV.

Now, over forty years later, I still remember some details about those carriages - but that was not the lesson I learned that day, the lesson that so much changed my perspective on life. What was was this: That the world is full of interesting things and interesting people. Things and people that we might pass right by. Things and ideas that can fire our imagination. People full of passion. People like that unassuming, easily passed over, old man in the carriage house.

What that meant, I realized -- and this is no small or unimportant thing -- is that we need never be bored. (Well nearly never.)  That guy sitting next to you in the doctor's office -- the one trying to find something to hold his interest, just as you are, during an interminable wait... What is his interest? His passion?  What not strike up a conversation. Ask and learn.

I recently faced just such a situation only to find that the 'old guy' (no, it wasn't a mirror) ;-) sitting across from me was a fellow sixties music buff -- one who had actually seen the Beatles live at Shea, one who had heard almost every name sixties band - bands I'd only dreamed of hearing - and who knew their music inside and out.  Once that subject came up his up until then dull eyes began to shine; he became animated. When he and I were some half hour or so later called in for our appointments we were both, I am sure, equally disappointed.

I was never in my youth a "motor head" - I enjoyed cars and motorcycles, yes, and had put on many a happy mile driving and riding them. But really interested? No. Passionate? No.  And then Jan, my wife, bought me a Ducati for our 25th anniversary. Suddenly this bike, so full of of brilliant engineering, so gorgeous of design, caught my interest, and having become a person of passion I dove into the lore of the machine with all my heart.  I started
researching it. Writing about it. And more, took the trouble of posting some of these articles of enthusiasm on the web.

Then one day a letter arrived - a letter from Ducati's CEO. He had
A very animated Dave Van Epps, then Chief of
New Product Development at Ducati, shares his
enthusiasm with Jan at The Ducati Musuem,
Bologna, Italy

discovered my writings. (I never learned how) and all of a sudden my small passion became an opportunity I had never dreamed of.  I was asked to be a regular writer for and for several of the company's books and magazine. "Back Road Musings"   The next thing I knew Jan and I were on our way to Bologna Italy to represent the company and to share our now shared passion with other Ducati owners and enthusiasts at a large, week-long, company event.

Later something similar happened in my life when I took the interest, and decided to share my passion, for my own sixties experience as a music maker. Yes, just as the interest and enthusiasm of the carriage fanatic had fired my interest and enthusiasm all those years ago, now my interest
"Hey, Let's Go Now!" - Recorded
in the `60s,  released in 2011

and enthusiasm fired that of others. I suddenly (and with complete surprise) learned that my interest and enthusiasm for The Abstracts -- my "forgotten" sixties band with but one not-quite-a-hit record -- was shared by others. Many others! And not just here in the U.S. but in Europe as well. Published interviews followed (The Abstracts - An Exclusive Interview), then -- most amazing of all -- a record album. Who could have foresaw all this happening? Certainly not I!

I somehow suspect that I am far from alone in having such experiences. I equally suspect that most if not all of the truly happy people I have met over the years have discovered this almost magical, hidden, truth: That the secret of a life of meaning and satisfaction is hinged on those two things -- interest and passion -- to our giving ourselves in to both of them. Not our having a mere 'bucket list' of things that we check off with the spirit of "been there, done that," but true involvement in life, in the things that enliven our sprit and fire our soul.

I learned this lesson when I was already in my mid to late twenties. Some, I am sure, learn it earlier. Other's later. But learning it is key.  Interests. Passions. Those things -- the sharing of those things -- is the very meaning of life.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Detroit - Imagining the Unimaginable (and fixing blame)

Like preschoolers with a wiggle tooth many Americans have for some time now been unable to stop wiggling the painful image of the collapsing metropolis that is Detroit. So many writers and photographers have  produced pieces on the ongoing and almost unbelievable devastation there that their articles and columns have gotten a name: "Ruin Porn." Vince Carducci - Revealing Detroit Photography

Do people actually live among such ruins? Yes. By choice? Highly unlikely. This, too, is like a popular children's passtime, only here played in reverse - the game of Musical Chairs. The music plays -- a catchy tune -- and each player walks around and around in a circle knowing that when the music stops someone will be left without a chair. Or in this case stuck in one.

Yet, underneath our sophistication and well worn air of experience, we all remain children when it comes to games. Loose teeth.  Being left chairless. Winners and losers. And on and on the music goes until...

For the once glorious city of Detroit the tooth has come out and the music has stopped. Who has been left toothless? Who will soon find himself without a chair? The country waits and watches with equal fear and fascination knowing, and perhaps fearing, that our music will one day stop too.

How did such a thing come to pass?  Is there a tooth fairy who can in some way bring us some comfort amidst the pain?

Asking (as we must) the question "how?" will likely start a new game of its own. The game called Shift The Blame. If we are not ourselves players we will likely at least be tempted to start rooting for one of the teams. -The one whose philosophy most clearly matches our own.

Those of a Liberal bent will continue to blame the wealthy capitalists -- especially the auto makers. After all are they not still making their fortunes? How selfish of them to abandon the city that did so much to create their wealth!

Political Conservatives will put the blame on the auto unions who, in the auto companies' pre- world competition heyday, made such demands on the companies that once those companies had given in they were trapped forever in an  untenable situation. For those with this POV, those companies were from then on trapped. It was simply a matter of flee Detroit (and those union contracts) or die.

And then, of course, there are those who will blame the politicians and the municipal workers who took the roles together of "company bosses" and "union bargainers" but who in fact hardly "bargained" at all. Instead they simply looked out for themselves -- taking all that they could -  early retirements, double dippings, and all the other tricks that fall under the rubric of "Looking Out for Number One" -- and then passing the totally unfair (and unpayable) costs on to future generations.

Others will look yet deeper, seeing the forming and then springing of a very natural human trap. -The one that comes so often with victory. In this case the winning of WWII and with it the building of an enormous industrial base, a world-wide appetite for consumer goods and (perhaps most damaging of all) a belief in the efficacy of a top-down structure with government largess behind it - the very thing that brought on and assured the enormous victory that had just been won.

And then there is another fall guy: "Democracy" as we Americans have come to see it, where our nation is no longer so much a Republic under laws, with wise decisions made largely by those with a stake in the game, but a free-wheeling "Rule of the People" be they educated or illiterate, productive or stagnant, creators or takers, encouraged -- egged on really! - to "have a say" whether they are inclined to or not. And where better to celebrate "motor voter laws" than in "Motor City" - Detroit.

There is enough truth in all these arguments for its adherents to, in their own eyes, hold sway.  But in the end this arguing will prove to be merely academic. Those who are at all far seeing will, as they did in Detroit, continue to move on before the music stops. The politicians will have been long out of office. The union guys on the golf course. The early retirees in their Florida condos. And the young, underpowered and uneducated will be -- no, make that "are" -- left in a city that was. No Tooth Fairy will be found. The State of Michigan has debts enough without picking up the city of Detroit's. The Federal Government itself is broke and for largely all the above reasons writ yet larger.

All this is the true "ruin porn."

And watch it we must.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Some Thoughts On Dreams versus Reality

There are broadly two viewpoints on dealing with the challenge of lawlessness and antisocial behavior. The social-science approved view that the answer is unending compassion, understanding and resulting tolerance vs the 'old-school' view of demonstrating firmness and being willing to 'dish out' punishment when required.

The social-science view has great appeal to the heart, especially when contrasted (often in a straw man argument) against harshness and callousness.

The social-science view is typically supported by college age adults, academics of any age and those who otherwise have lived highly protected lives. The old-school appeals to those with significant unprotected real-world experience.

President Obama, as a community activist and as an academic, naturally leans to the social-science view. Thus his approach to the middle east of apologies, tolerance of their own intolerance, and exaggerated praise for their place in human progress.

He (and his Dept. of Justice) have taken a similar view when they are faced with challenges to domestic security, be it on a state, city, community or a family level. EXCEPT -- and this is generally true of those who espouse such beliefs -- in their own immediate community and family. There high standards of behavior and personal responsibility are expected to be met and respected. They personally thus generally don't marry until they are financially secure, don't have children until they marry, and choose to live in exclusive communities where they can be confident that their neighbors too live by such standards. And such they expect of their own children.

What results when the social-science model is habitually applied, be it on the scale of international affairs or on a city, community or family level? Chaos. Such as in the Middle East today where Obama's application of that philosophy was seen as weakness, in our cities where long falling crime statistics have started to trend upward with mayhem and violence on the streets (now leaking out of the traditional high crime areas), and in yet worsening disintegration of the family unit among dependent groups of people.

What is the answer? Certainly not feeling-free harshness in any of those spheres, but the willingness to do in all of them what good parents have always done. Set firm standards of acceptable and unacceptable conduct, live by them, and expect others to do so to with commensurate consequences for those that do not.

Simple really. And that is why the simple, unsophisticated, world of earlier America worked on so many levels that ours does not today.