The New (Brian and Mary) Wilsonianism at Princeton

As the hunter-killer squads of social justice warriors rampage, they are looking farther afield for new offensive flesh to devour. The Confederate flag fell first, now they are vandalizing and calling for the removal of Confederate statuary. Next up: schools and streets bearing the names of Southern generals and statesmen. Lee, Jackson, Davis, Forrest and others will be erased.

That brings us to my alma mater, Princeton University, where half the campus seems to bear the name of Woodrow Wilson, Class of 1879, University President from 1902 to 1910 and, by the way, U.S. President from 1913 to 1921. Besides involving the U.S. in World War I and introducing the income tax, Wilson had a quite a record as a stone-cold racist in word and deed.

This wretched record has prompted calls for Princeton to scrub Wilson’s name from the campus. That’s a tall order, given the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, and Wilson College. Then you have non-Princeton entities such as the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and the Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellows.

All are now tainted with the branding reproach of racism. Down the memory hole with them all.

But wait, can’t we reason together to find another solution somewhere between acceptance of the status quo and ISIS-esque destruction of anything associated with the detested ancien regime? Yes we can!

While Woodrow (actually, that’s his middle name, Thomas being his actual first name) is a distinct moniker, Wilson is a common name shared with many accomplished and noble individuals who should pass through the fires of political correctness relatively unscathed.

My idea: let’s simply remove “Woodrow” and replace it with a more suitable first name. Problem solved!

Princeton can lead the way in the de-woodrowing process, as painful as it may be. The Wilson School, otherwise known locally as Woody Woo, can be our starting point.

An elite school favored by aspiring diplomats and law-school applicants, the Wilson School has a great reputation. A new name must reflects its worldwide standing and connect it with innovation, leadership, creativity and, given Woodrow Wilson’s health-impaired last years, a degree of poignancy and sadness.

In all the Wilsons of the world, I can think of none more fitting to assume the heavy mantle of leadership than the founder of the Beach Boys and an authentic musical genius, Brian Wilson.

Newly renamed, the Brian Wilson School of Public and International Affairs would be a pacesetter in the application of surf tunes and soaring vocals to the world’s most pressing problems. Where all the chi-squared regression analysis, Keynesian economic theorizing and multilateral “getting to yes” negotiations fail to move the needle on global crises, why not try “Little Deuce Coupe” to set the right tone for a conference on green transportation alternatives? Try locking the Ukrainians and the Russians in a room and listening to “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?”—they’d find common ground for an agreement. And for any Princetonians who ever had a post-high school summer romance with a girl named Barbara Ann, like I did, then “Barbara Ann” would be the perfect song to play when Tigers leave campus for summer adventures.

On a more serious note, Brian Wilson’s struggles with mental illness and drug abuse connect him to Woodrow Wilson’s stroke and impairment in the second term of his presidency, when his wife served as the “real” president, in sort of the way that therapist Eugene Landy controlled Brian Wilson’s health and career.

The timing could not be better for the name change. The biopic Love & Mercy about Brian Wilson just debuted to great acclaim. I’m confident that, with the right approach and serious intent, university management could make the Brian Wilson School of Public and International Affairs a reality by the time the movie appears on Netflix. A gala screening, combined with a Beach Boys set on the plaza outside the Wilson School, would be a perfect way to start afresh.

That’s one Wilson on campus. Now, what about Wilson College, a residential college where I lived in 1938 Hall when I was a sophomore?

This could be easier to fix, since it’s known as Wilson College, not Woodrow Wilson College. Still, the name must be detoxified. Out of all the Wilsons in the world, I’ll suggest the marvelous singer Mary Wilson, an original member of the Supremes along with Diana Ross and Florence Ballard. She stayed with the group even after the others left and she was the only original member. For that kind of dedication, along with her work advocating for musicians’ rights, she deserves to have a Princeton college named in her honor. She’s organized museum exhibits of the Supremes’ famous stage costumes, and such an exhibit could work well at Princeton as an adjunct to the garish orange and black Reunions costumes favored by alumni.

Mary Wilson College would have a grand inauguration. Brian Wilson, of course, would head on down from his Wilson School for some soulful singing. And given that Mary Wilson sang with a very special group, I could imagine her for musical numbers with Princeton alumni serving on the OTHER Supremes—Supreme Court justices (in order of class year) Samuel Alito ’72, Sonia Sotomayor ’76 and Elena Kagan ’81. Together, this tuneful trio could join Mary Wilson and honor her for her decades of music. They might even perform a Supremes classic that deserves to be the theme song for American universities’ campaign for consensual canoodling on campus: “Stop! In the Name of Love.”

The festivities would conclude with a gala bonfire to incinerate portraits of Woodrow Wilson and his collected writings.

Next on the Discard Pile: The Rolodex of Memories

First I replaced the LG dumbphone with the Samsung Galaxy S5 smartphone, then I stopped renewing my annual purchase of monthly Day-Timer inserts and now . . . I’m ditching the Rolodex.

Unlike the other techno tools, I haven’t used my Rolodex in years. I had a circular one once, but the current one is flat. After a recent move, I’m trying to simplify my life and a Rolodex brimming with cards for people from decades past at companies that no longer exist looks like a prime candidate for Goodwill. Jotted in my jiggly handwriting and free from any email addresses, URLs and Twitter handles, the cards record a pre-digital life that must be impossible for young people to imagine. Those were the days you memorized phone numbers and carried them in your head, not your pocket.

Still, I linger before sending it off, mostly because the names evoke times and places, both personal and professional.

Most of the cards date from 1987 to 1995, when I was the east coast editor of Video Store Magazine. The cards give contacts at movie studios, retailers and trade associations involved with entertainment and consumer electronics. Some cards of note:

  • CompUSA
  • Bizarre Video Productions
  • Mark Harrad, the very savvy PR manager for the anti-piracy program of the Motion Picture Association of America. He would arrange for members of the press to attend FBI raids on places making or selling illegal videos; I was an observer at a Brooklyn raid, an edge experience.
  • Sega
  • Kay Bee Toys
  • Montgomery Ward
  • New York Public Library telephone reference
  • Artist Mark Kostabi, who did a book of his paintings called “Sadness Because the Video Rental Store Was Closed;” I did a story about the book and he gave me a copy, which I still have
  • Tandy Corp.
  • Atari Computer Corp.(written on the back of a Rolodex card that bore the name and phone number of a fellow Princetonian I dated once, more details to come)

Video Store laid me off 20 years ago this month, ending my career in business journalism, so those cards lost any value, but I hung on to them anyway.

Rolodex

Other cards stir memories of personal connections:

  • The phone number for the Harriman Institute at Columbia University; I fantasized about studying Russian there and becoming a kremlinologist or East Bloc-hopping journalist in the twilight of the USSR. But I stayed in journalism and fate took me in a very different suburban direction.
  • Project Dorot, a group matching volunteers with the Jewish elderly, where I was a friendly visitor from 1980 to 1994, teamed with a German immigrant named Rena Frank.
  • A woman named Shira, who I had one date with and then we both moved on to other things and she made a very good life for herself.
  • A woman named Shula (a/k/a Sheila when I met her at a singles event in 1981). We had a date on my 25th birthday and a photo shows us both looking spiffy. She’s wearing a beret like Faye Dunaway wore in “Bonnie and Clyde.” She urged me to eat organic foods and was into algae products.
  • That fellow Princetonian who I dated once or twice, who has the same 212 phone number, over 30 years later. Good for you!
  • Women with the confusingly universal Jewish name combination of Laura/Laurie/Lori/Lauri/Lauren Friedman/Freeman/Friedman/Friedmann/Freidman. I could never remember which was which, although one walked out on a first date we had to see Shakespeare in Central Park. She had to get ready to go to the Hamptons the next day and she saw I was “really enjoying the play,” so she up and left during the intermission. I scratched her off my dating list, but I kept the phone number, or was that the number for Lori/Lorie/Laurie/Laura/Lauren in Brooklyn who liked to get stoned? I’ll never know. Trying to find one Laurie Friedman in New York is like trying to find one Maria Garcia in Texas — the proverbial needle in the haystack of similar names.
  • Texas Monthly, when I dreamed of relocating to Austin in 1990 for a completely different career in journalism.

Two or three decades separate me from these people and memories. Technology moved on. The discardable contact entries in cellphones and computers store the intricate contact details for hundreds of contacts, across multiple phones and emails. I make no more scribbled updates on Rolodex cards or address books. I type updates in bloodless Arial fonts, or just hit “delete and they’re gone.

The Rolodex kept the old paper life around long after the Rolodex lost its use. I’ll save some of the cards just for old time’s sake (a sentimental weakness of mine). But something’s got to give in my endless efforts to declutter and this small tool, a rope tying me to the past that will never be relevant again, has got to go.

Still, for all I know, Shira/Shula/Laurie/Lauren still has a forgotten address book that includes some guy (wasn’t he a writer? Whatever happened to him?) who lived at 131 Amity Street in Brooklyn.

 

A Most Notable Memorial

On Saturday, I had the honor of co-leading the memorial service for the Princeton Class of 1980 at our 35th Reunion. We held the remembrance in the 9/11 Memorial Garden on campus, which honors the Princetonians killed on September 11, 2001, including our classmate Robert Deraney. An a capella group sang hymns, the class president read from the Book of Psalms and I read the conclusion of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound. While not a conventional selection for a memorial service, it immediately came to my mind when the class officers were creating the event. It always strikes me as mournful yet hopeful:

To suffer woes which Hope thinks infinite;
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night;
To defy Power, which seems omnipotent;
To love, and bear; to hope till Hope creates
From its own wreck the thing it contemplates;
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent;
This, like thy glory, Titan, is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free;
This is alone Life, Joy, Empire, and Victory.

The remembrance struck the right balance of comfort and grief, recalling roommates and friends lost over the decades, a reminder of our own mortality as the fresh graduates of 1980 are now working through retirement and grandchildren and whatever comes next in life on the far side of middle age.

On Sunday, thoughts of the memorial were on my mind when I found a copy of the Hartford Courant newspaper to read on the trip home from Grand Central Terminal to Connecticut. I scanned the obituary page; this section is a signal function of newspapers, a printed record of lives as recalled by family members and friends. They reflect not just lives, but also the economic, spiritual and civic aspects of a region.

As I looked through the Courant, I found a most notable memorial, a very rare example of a literary genre you could call the do-it-yourself obituary notice, a first-person summing-up of a life well lived. Diane Cusson began her life celebration with these words:

I, Diane (Hanson) Cusson, 72, grew up in East Hampton, CT., a small rural town and died on May 27,2015. I met my husband, Kenneth “Ken” Cusson, in Manchester, CT.. I graduated from Manchester High School, Class of 1960. While Ken was home on leave in 1963 from the Air Force, he called me. We started dating and I wrote daily letters. I dedicated “Since I Fell for You” by Lenny Welch to him on radio station WDRC in Hartford. He could pick up the station while at Loring Air Force Base in Maine. I got a phone call on New Year’s Eve of that year and he proposed marriage. We got married on June 13, 1964 and have been partners and friends for 51 years. We went back to Maine for our honeymoon in my 1954 red Chevrolet with $50.

Cusson’s life review goes on for hundreds more of compelling words; I’ll leave it to readers to click through and explore her travels, faith and family. She sounds like the kind of friend and neighbor we would all value.

The idea of writing your own memorial, be it for a newspaper or the Princeton Alumni Weekly, makes sense. Have a say in your final narrative. I’ve never thought about it, but now I will. We Princetonians are practiced at this sort of retrospective self-analysis. Those of us who revel in the pageantry and rituals of the major Reunions will put pen to paper every five years to write an essay for the class Reunion book. Your collective essays add up to a relentless statement of life’s progression through decades. Last weekend marked my seventh major Reunion–and now the heat is on for me to get cracking on my online submission for the 35th Reunion essay. I’ve been a laggard about this, unusual given that the idea of writer’s block is foreign to me.

My essays, which chronicle work, lack of work, marriage, lack of marriage, fatherhood  and other highs and lows of my life, get me started on the DIY memorial. They sketch my view of life at key dates; all that’s lacking is classmates’ perspectives. When the moment comes in far distant decades for PAW to run my memorial, I’d like to think the memorialist of that time can draw from my own words in the Reunions books to capture my thoughts on my life, just as Diane Cusson wrote so well about her life in the Hartford Courant.

If technology makes it available, perhaps even this very essay will be quoted as a meta-memorial, my final message to the future.

Mind Games, From Texas to Brooklyn

On a recent visit to the Brooklyn Museum, I checked my backpack. When I retrieved it several hours later, I noticed a piece of paper tucked into its outside webbing. The page had been torn from a museum map and said this on it:

I caught you staring at me from across the room but you didn’t come right over. Were you being coy, well it worked. Maybe you felt the need to see the others, knowing that I would seize your full attention. You held your hands behind your back, resisting your desire to touch me. I longed for you to come close but we had to keep our distance under the watchful eye of another. You slowed, staying long enough to see all sides of me. You quietly traced my contours with your looking. I am wondering how I appeared in your eyes. I don’t know if I am projecting but you seemed to be trying to uncover something, as if I held a secret for you. So did you get what you wanted from me? Course I am left with the lingering feeling of our encounter.

Bklyn Museum-edit

That’s all. No address, no name, no closure. After my pulse returned to normal, I wet a finger and ran it across a word to see if this was, in fact, an actual written note and not a pre-printed piece of performance art that some transgressive artist had photocopied and stuck into my backpack as performance art.

The black letter smeared slightly. The writing was real.

I thought about this mind game of a note, which did not match any reality that occurred that evening at the museum, where I strolled with my girlfriend the whole time. The only time a note could have been slipped into my backpack was when it was in the check room. Not even a Mossad super-agent could have done the drop in the seconds between the time I got the backpack and when I noticed the note.

I’m left with a mystery of identity and intent that cannot be solved.

This comes about 40 years after other mysterious notes blossomed in my locker in high school. The similarity in anonymous, teasing targeting is remarkable. Somebody knows how to get inside my head, first in 1975 when I was a teen, then 40 years later when I’m past middle age and relentlessly approaching senior citizen status. Times change, but the mysteries of human contact linger on.

I still have the notes from the years of high school confidential. They bore the initials “M.R.” The apogee came with the piece shown below. I thought I had saved them, but I can’t find them. Somehow I expressed my curiosity to M.R. and she responded with loopy adolescent female notes that eventually make references to her buck teeth. I’ve turned over every file and yearbook I have but can’t find anything but the piece de resistance, a piece of heavy mat card, colored on one side in a stylized “W” and written on the other.

MR front-2507_001

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The back of the card said, “Someone lost something, all yours, FINDERS KEEPERS. This is a suviner from an admirer ‘M.R.'”

MR back-2510_001

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I never heard anything else. I doubt M.R. used her actual initials. It could be one person, it could have been a group project from kids who wanted to see how I’d react. I imagine I reacted exactly the way they wanted me to.

Forty years later, the note in the Brooklyn Museum sent my musings backward to M.R. For all I know M.R. and I are connected on Facebook, or I’ll see her (and never know) at my fortieth high school reunion next summer in the pulsing humid heat of Hidalgo County, Texas. Maybe she’ll read this and come clean, if she even remembers.

In the age of Facebook, Twitter, instant messaging and the other digital toys, I wonder if the art of the handwritten anonymous mash note has been lost, dissolved and made beyond quaint in the waves of the Web. The Brooklyn writer must at least be in her 40s to have the wit and drive to actually write an anonymous note. I can’t see somebody raised on iPhones doing that. Writing a note and sticking it in a book bag or in a locker — that’s basic training in the emotional arena of mind games. The impulses must play out online, but I just don’t know. I can safely guess, however, that nobody is going to hang on to a tweet or IM for 40 years.

A Matter of the Heart

Last Sunday I worked with a community group at Westport’s new YMCA at an all-day Hands-Only CPR training event. I did the training as well, developed by the American Heart Association and I highly recommend it as essential knowledge for everybody. Besides hands-on CPR, attendees learned how to operated a type of simplified automated external defibrillator (AED).

I visited a table set up at the gym by a group called the Michael Vincent Sage Dragonheart Foundation of Hamden, Connecticut. The foundation honors Michael Sage. The website tells his story and its connection to the event:

 Michael was only 29 years old when he suffered a fatal sudden cardiac arrhythmia (SCA).  He was active in sports for most of his life and never exhibited any of the warning signs associated with SCA, such as episodes of dizziness, fainting, or seizures.  He arrived at work on a beautiful February morning, got a cup of coffee with his colleagues, collapsed and died.  People on the scene attempted to revive Michael using CPR, but there was no AED available, and by the time the paramedics arrived, Michael could not be saved. In a matter of moments, Michael was gone.

The foundation was formed to educate the public on AEDs and collect funds to support research and donate AEDs to places where they can be available to save lives, like schools and sports facilities. It has donated AEDs to groups throughout Connecticut, and outside of the state. More information about its finances can be found at the Charity Navigator site.

Michael’s mother was working at the table and graciously shared information about the group. I instantly liked her and the simple focus of the Dragonheart Foundation. Educate, donate, save lives. Nothing about it was flashy or overdone, just one group with one goal, based on the loss of one son, husband and friend.

If your group could benefit from an on-site AED, consider filling out the nomination form to get a donated AED. The nomination form can be found on the site. It’s better to be prepared than not. Knowing CPR and having access to an AED are things you never need . . . until the desperate seconds when you need them more than anything.

30 Days Without a Day-Timer

April wasn’t the cruelest month, but it was the first month I’ve arranged my life without the trusty Day-Timer organizer I have used faithfully since the 1980s. How did I survive without my scribbled-in sidekick, my companion since the later Reagan years?

Well enough. This marked a lifestyle change I never thought I would make, since I started using Day-Timers after I began a job as East Coast Editor of Video Store Magazine in 1987. I latched on to using the monthly version and just kept ordering it, decade after decade. I slipped monthly inserts into a leather holder of great sentimental value with my name embossed on it, where I also stored business cards (including that of the lawyer who did my will . . .  just in case), my Metro Card for subway journeys and inspirational items, like a photo of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Like clockwork, the Day-Timer people alerted me each April to renew and each April I did. While worn and held together in one place with tape, the leather carrier dutifully carried the Day-Timer insert with me around the world, surviving moves among a half-dozen Lands’ End shoulder bags and now backpacks.

Daytimer 1

Over the decades I scribbled dates, reporting notes, lurches of inspiration, song lyrics, phone call records, books to read and movies to see in the pages. Some pages became reminders of fateful occasions, and I saved those for September 11, 2001 and June 13, 2003, the latter the day I got divorced at the courthouse in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Even as friends ditched Day-Timers and Day Runners, inertia and a lack of alternatives tied me to my favorite organizer.

And then I finally, reluctantly, got a smart phone in October 2014.

I was way late to that digital revolution, having stuck with my LG Chocolate “dumb phone” for four years while everybody else snapped up iPhones. But ever the techno-Luddite, I stayed with what I had.

I stayed with it until I finally realized that lack of access to email and limited IM were causing me social problems. After loads of research, I settled on a Samsung S5 and entered the brave new world of smartphones.

When I leaped into the smartphone lifestyle, I still had eight months of Day-Timers left, and I kept using them, but I noticed what I used them for. To be honest with myself, note-taking took up more space than actual date keeping, given my simple lifestyle. My social calendar takes little upkeep.

When March came around, I downloaded a Google Calendar and then the Evernote app and bravely decided to ditch the Day-Timer.

I expected a blizzard of mail and even phone calls from the Day-Timer marketing team, alarmed that I had not renewed. After all, I had always heard that client retention drives businesses, that once you have a client, fight hard to keep him. I’d had that experience with the American Civil Liberties Union, which I joined for a year after losing a Facebook bet that the ACLU would support a particular party in a free-speech issue (I thought the ACLU wouldn’t support a group; it did, but it did, so I ponied up for a membership). I let my membership lapse after a year and have had the ACLU regularly sending renewals for years. The Forward newspaper, to which I’ve subscribed since its English-language edition debuted in 1991, always expresses alarm when I fail to promptly renew, although I finally do, but I delay just to see how hard the paper will work to keep me as a subscriber.

So what would Day-Timer do after over a quarter century of clockwork renewals?

Nothing.

No calls, no emails, no price reductions, no expressions of concern at the onrushing loss of an annuity stream of income, nothing to indicate I counted for anything more than a few easily ignored digital blips in the Client Relationship Management (CRM) database. How hard will Day-Timer need to work on new client acquisition to replace an old-timer who probably could have been won over with a price reduction, just for old time’s sake?

The silence says everything I need to know. At least the ACLU and the Forward tried, and the Forward always wins, I just like to make the paper work for my capitalist shekels.  My Galaxy S5 apps are keeping me on top of my schedule, and I have a yearly page-a-day diary at work as backup in case I need to supplement the phone with something scribbled down.

Despite the month without a Day-Timer, I still carry the insert around in the beloved leather holder. I’m realizing the concept and the holder (a memorable gift) satisfy some deep psycho-social need, far beyond practicality. Call it an office version of a security blanket. Forsaking the monthly inserts, I may try to find the notepad inserts at Staples and use those, for the moments when my reporter instinct kicks in and I have to start jotting notes.

Old habits may not ever die, they just transmogrify themselves to another plane of existence.

Daytimer2

 

Diving into My Box of Books

My version of Black Friday comes every summer when the Westport, Redding and Pequot libraries in Connecticut hold their gigantic tent sales. Over the years I’ve made some great finds, especially in foreign language books with emotional or historical interest — an 1862 Hebrew-German prayer book from Stuttgart, Germany, a 1938 volume of Yiddish poetry by Peretz Markish, who was executed in Stalin’s Russia in 1952.

This summer, I stormed the tents but saved my big purchase for the last day of the Redding sale, when I could get a box of books for $5. At that price, I could scoop up books I ordinarily wouldn’t even notice, just because I could. Here’s the haul of my awesome Box of Books, with notes on what I’ve read, what I thought of them, and what comes next:

The O’Hara Generation, John O’Hara. I’d heard of O’Hara but after watching the film treatment of his novel Butterfield 8 with Elizabeth Taylor, I wanted to get a taste of him. I’m now reading this book of short stories written over 30 years, and they are grabbing me with their ability to evoke a time and place, with his knack for capturing speech patterns. The stories can be haunting in their depictions of middle- and upper-class bleakness.

The Brigade: An Epic Story of Vengeance, Salvation and WWII, Howard Blum: This was a great book that filled in my knowledge of the Jewish experience during and after World War II, when Jewish execution squads hunted down SS and Gestapo members. Blum is a meticulous reporter and a vibrant writer. The book will stay in my library as a resource for blog posts and other writing projects.

Good in Bed, Jennifer Weiner: I’ve always read about Weiner, Princeton ’91, and decided to take a read of her breakthrough first novel. As rom com it worked, with all the requisite highs and lows and satisfying ending.

Mexican High, Liza Monroy. This was a huge surprise. Based on the author’s experiences as a student at an international school, Mexican High is set at a time when I had actually been in Mexico City on vacation in December 1993. Well-written, surprising and gripping, it gave me some insights into the lifestyles of the upper upper classes in Mexico. It worked a lot better than other books I’ve read or tried to read set in Mexico, like Under the Volcano, which bog down in their attempts to capture and comprehend the sun-bleached mysteries of Mexico.

Nature Girl, Carl Hiaasen: I greatly enjoyed Hiaasen’s two other comic crime novels set in South Florida, Bad Monkey and Skinny Dip. He had me chortling with laughter with his snappy prose and outrageous situations. Nature Girl, however, seemed more labored, without the strong crime angle and with too many characters bumping into one another. Maybe a little Carl Hiaasen goes a long way; I’ll try some of his other works.

Alex Cross, James Patterson: I wanted to read something by the renowned crime writer, so I scooped this up. An easy read, a familiar setting (Washington, DC) and an intriguing bad guy made this worthwhile, although I don’t feel a burning desire to read more in the Cross series. Espionage novels are more my game.

The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffengegger: I like time travel books but this one didn’t grab me at all. I took a break then started up again, mostly skimming through the hundreds of pages of rather inert prose that bogs down a story that could have moved faster. The book picked up some momentum near the end and I’d look at the sequel if it ever appears.

Still in the box:

Bangkok Haunts, John Burdett (I enjoyed his novel Bangkok 8)

Bullett Park, John Cheever (suburban lives)

The Lincoln Lawyer, Michael Connelly
The Reversal, Michael Connelly
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
The Time of Our Singing, Richard Powers
Body Surfing, Anita Shreve (always horny, angst-ridden baby boomers. I can relate)
My Sister’s Keeper, Jodi Picoult
Joy in the Morning, Betty Smith (I loved A Tree Grows in Brooklyn)
Next up: Skeleton Crew, Stephen King

A New Year’s Resolution Starts Early

I always vote, but otherwise I’ve rarely engaged in governance matters. Sure, I go to pro-Israel marches and community events, such as after the Sandy Hook killings. Officials, however, rarely hear from me directly. I’m more of a wordsmith In the digital age, spouting off on Facebook mostly. That creates an ersatz sense of action, but I know I’m just honing my pithy writing skills and having zero impact on public affairs.

So my New Year’s resolutions started two weeks early for 2015. I contacted my district members of Westport’s Representative Town Meeting (RTM) and I signed up for mailings from my U.S. Representative, Jim Himes, and U.S. Senators, Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy. I’m already on the mailing lists of my Connecticut state legislators, Representative Jonathan Steinburg and Senator Toni Boucher.

The outreach came after the fateful November elections, which didn’t see any political upheavals in blue-as-ice Connecticut but will still create political pressures on state and federal legislators from the Nutmeg State. Given the wretched state of journalism, I can’t glean much about what’s going on from the local free weekly, so I decided to become an informed citizen and connect with my legislators in Hartford and Washington, as well as Westport Town Hall.

I’m already engaging. Early Sunday morning, I sent an email to my three RTM district members outlining my interests:

  • Transportation: I commute to NYC on Metro-North, and am a fan of all kinds of public transit
  • Economic development
  • Planning and zoning matters as an economic impediment

I had an RTM response back within an hour, and the member and I traded some emails as he provided sources to keep me informed on issues in Westport. That made me feel more a part of the community and I’ll build from there.

On the national level, I completed an online poll offered by Rep. Himes on immigration issues. I indicated which of about 10 options appealed to me, and I shared my own view on how to respond to the immigration crisis. Let’s say I offered a creative approach to ensuring that people with visas leave the country when they are supposed to leave (hint: RFID chips).

The website of Sen. Blumenthal provoked the most visceral reaction. I had never warmed up to Blumenthal, even when he was Connecticut’s Attorney General. He had a certain over-eager, jump-on-the-bandwagon tonality that rubbed me the wrong way. His website merely confirmed those feelings with its rotating banner headlines:

  • The SPORTS (Sustained Promotion of Responsibility in Team Sports) Act aims to hold major sports leagues accountable for their response to major events within their leagues: from domestic violence to traumatic brain injuries.
  • The Death in Custody Reporting Act “requires states and federal law enforcement agencies to report to the Attorney General basic information regarding deaths occurring in law enforcement custody or during an arrest. It also requires the Attorney General to study this information and provide suggestions to reduce the number of such deaths.” (Don’t resist arrest or point a weapon at police could help, but I can’t imagine those being among the suggestions.)
  • College Sexual Assault Bill of Rights. “Senator Blumenthal released a college sexual assault report and bill of rights to help increase safety and accountability on college campuses.”

I may not agree these issues are the best use of a senator’s time, but he’s showing me some of his priorities, so I’ll give him credit for that. And I’ll let him know my priorities.

Now that I’m connected to the lawmakers, I expect I’ll share my views with them. For instance, if asked about issues that matter, I’ll indicate freedom of speech and defense of liberty. Nobody comes right and talks about these issues, which I see as under assault daily on college campuses and in general discourse – the high-tech lynch mobs are at the ready to quash opinions that go against the correct mainstream thinking. That may be a quaint concern to voice to my legislators, but somebody needs to say that in Connecticut, and that might as well be me.

I don’t know where this will lead. I may attend RTM subcommittee meetings to get a better handle on what happens at the most granular level of democracy. I may get involved in more local matters that intertwine with town zoning matters, such as the Westport Cinema Initiative, an attempt to bring an art-house movie space to downtown. When I moved to town in 1991, we had five screens; the last closed at least 15 years ago. Westport seems like a perfect place for an art-house cinema, given the population, and I can see this happening and thriving. Sen. Steinberg supports this effort, so I am beginning to connect the dots between public officials and topics that interest me. Anything involving Westport planning and zoning, in my experience, dissolves into decades of discussion, litigation and despair, but adding my voice to the effort could make a difference, and make me a part of the civil discourse.

You know, I think I’ve found my cause.

The Madonna and Mr. Klinghoffer

I recently visited the New Museum in New York, which has a multi-floor exhibit called “Chris Ofili: Night and Day” with the colorful and at times massive paintings of the British artist, who has strong African influences. One of the works looked very familiar to me, something I had seen or heard about, if not viewed up close and personal. The piece must have had some significance, since it had its own jocular security guard standing next to it.

After I read a caption for the painting, I remembered the painting. I was in the presence of the notorious 1996 work titled “The Holy Virgin Mary.” It had caused massive controversy when displayed at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999, when Rudy Giuliani was the Mayor of New York and part-time art critic. One description of the the piece states,

The central Black Madonna is surrounded by many collaged images that resemble butterflies at first sight, but on closer inspection are photographs of female genitalia; an ironic reference to the putti that appear in traditional religious art. A lump of dried, varnished elephant dung forms one bared breast, and the painting is displayed leaning against the gallery wall, supported by two other lumps of elephant dung, decorated with coloured pins: the pins on the left are arranged to spell out “Virgin” and the one on the right “Mary.”

The art-critic/mayor went bats over the “sick” painting. He tried to withdraw the City’s $7 million grant to the museum and kick it out of its venerable building on Eastern Parkway. He raged against the elephant poop angle and insults against the Virgin. Others took up the case and the painting was defaced with white paint during the exhibit. The Brooklyn Museum fought back and kept its site and the exhibit.

Fast-forward 15 years. Giuliani has long since moved to the private sector but retains his distinctive aesthetic sense. He gave his views another airing this fall when the Metropolitan Opera performed “The Death of Klinghoffer.” First performed in 1991, the opera still makes waves with protests, impassioned letters and all the social media required to launch a high-profile controversial event in New York. I haven’t it or heard the music, so I’ll withhold jOfili-Madonna-smallerudgment on its artistic merits.

Giuliani, opera buff, wrote a piece in the Daily Beast, “Why I Protested ‘The Death of Klinghoffer,'” that took a different tone from what he did as mayor. He made clear the Met Opera had the First Amendment right to perform Klinghoffer, just as protesters had a right to speak out. He even appeared at public demonstrations against it. His analysis of the opera balanced the positive and the negative:

As an opera fan of some 57 years, I find the opera and view the music as a significant achievement. I own a CD, have heard it, and have read the libretto three or four times.

As an opera, the music and choruses are quite excellent. John Adams is one of America’s greatest composers, and I admire and enjoy his music.

However, as a story attempting to recount the appalling terrorist murder of Leon Klinghoffer, a man who was thrown into the Mediterranean Sea simply because he was Jewish, the opera is factually inaccurate and extraordinarily damaging to an appropriate description of the problems in Israel and Palestine, and of terrorism in general.

Giuliani’s tone and thoughtfulness won the praise of Jane Eisner, editor-in-chief of the Forward newspaper. Through gritted teeth, she wrote an editorial piece titled, “How Rudy Giuliani Got ‘Klinghoffer’ Right.” Both his writing and his style of civil protest worked for her, showing that the lion really can lie down with the lamb under the right circumstances.

Giuliani’s changed approach–from the mayoral menace against Madonna to the reasonable First Amendment views on Klinghoffer–showed a welcome evolution. Unable to pull the levers of mayoral power, Giuliani opted for an approach I like. Let the public speak out, weigh the situation, and decide. If only he had taken that stance with The Holy Virgin Mary,  I might have never heard of or remembered Ofili’s work..

But remember I did, and when I finally stood face to face with The Holy Virgin Mary, I liked it, along with Ofili’s other works. He has a great stylistic range, from the small to the huge. A fan of more representational art like me can appreciate his work. Not being Catholic, I lacked the visceral anger that Giuliani and others felt. Still, I’m sensitive to issues of faith and I didn’t see the work as disrespectful, but coming from a specific cultural context. Not every Madonna need resemble 15th century Italian paintings. It hung there as one more large of piece of art in a major retrospective, with nobody bent out of shape about the style or message..

I did feel some surprise that some feminists didn’t protest the art. Besides the Madonna and a clump of dung (which Ofili uses in many other of his works), the piece has dozens of cut-outs from photos of female genitalia (think Kim Kardashian without the inhibitions) floating like fleshy butterflies on the canvas. In today’s superheated atmosphere of microaggressions, that aspect of the painting must count as off-putting. But I never found any complaints.

People and their perceptions can change. Giuliani grew from the Scourge of Eastern Parkway to the Champion of the First Amendment. The Holy Virgin Mary went from transgressive to acceptable (to most people, anyway). Apart from the security guard, it hangs peacefully and unobtrusively in the New Museum. Perhaps those so upset in 1999 have moved on to other issues, or they came to understand what Ofili was aiming for, or they just didn’t want to raise a ruckus.

Will Klinghoffer ever reach that status? I doubt the opera will have an impact one way or another on anti-semitism or sympathy for Klinghoffer’s killers. With time, however, the protests in New York may move more in the Holy Virgin Mary direction. If I were the team behind the opera, however, I would never want the pot to completely stop bubbling — a little rage goes a long way toward putting fannies in the theater seats. After writing about the opera, I may even try to get my hands on a recording and see what all the fuss is about.

 

A Retro-New Look for the Rocketman

All the distracting uproar over the colorful beach shirt worn by Matt Taylor, the Rosetta project scientist for the European Space Agency’s successful effort to put a probe on a comet, sent me to my bookshelves, pawing for a paperback my father gave me 40 years ago as I (or rather, he) planned my post-college corporate life: “Dress for Success“, by John T. Molloy.

I couldn’t find it, but from reading the Amazon comments on the book I could recall its advice on suits, shirts, shoes and how clothes should fit. It served me well in the years when I had jobs that required wearing a more corporate look. When I started in the firmwide communications department at blue-chip accounting firm Price Waterhouse in 1996, everybody wore suits, with a casual Friday. Then that morphed into casual summer and by the the time I left in 1999, casual 24/7. And so the code remains with even more looseness in the corporate circles I’ve encountered. I thought, too bad that Taylor didn’t read it before he appeared in all his tattooed slacker glory on the world media scene. His haircut and beard trim looked quite presentable, at least. Somebody cleaned him up a bit.

Molloy’s ideas continue to influence how I dress. Every business shirt in my closet is a button-down, either blue or yellow or pink. My ties are silky with deep rich colors (my favorites are my Jerry Garcia ties). My suits, some still hanging around from the late 90s, are dark blue or charcoal and either plain or slightly pinstriped. My fashion-forward late-80s Hugo Boss suit, shimmering grey with the chunky shoulders, hit the racks at Goodwill years ago. On the spectrum of male work clothes, I’m far more Malloy than nerdy-techy, in theory if not practice.

Taylor’s shirt makes me wonder not so much about the latest social-media rage spiral, but the space agency’s media relations department and Taylor’s own common sense. Having worked as the back-up press spokesman for a New York law firm, I know you want to think about every contingency before an interview, especially one for TV. Media trainers should have spent serious time with Taylor drilling him on what he was going to say and also the impression he would make after the landing.

The uproar doesn’t reflect poorly on Taylor, who probably lives on an intellectual-technological level far beyond the dreary concerns of dress codes. Instead, the fault lies with the people who put him in front of a camera, like a lamb before the wolves. Somebody in PR was asleep or on heavy medication. Taylor may not have much in the way of a corporate sartorial sense, but the communications pros at the European Space Agency should.

If Taylor and the European Space Agency wanted to fire up enthusiasm for intergalactic exploration, might I suggest a retro-modern look? Take the conservative sensibility of John Molloy and cross-pollinate it with the practical, authentic, cool-in-the-clutch look so common at Mission Control during the space race of the 1960s and visible in “The Right Stuff.” Short bristly hair, black plastic glasses, pocket protectors — they all screamed “competence” in a way that can’t be duplicated so easily with the unkept look. With some long sleeves and sensible haircuts, the Taylors of the world world would look a bit more presentable. And, I might venture, warm feelings based on the great era of space exploration could come back and public interest in space might blossom (and that translates enthusiasm for increased funding, if you want to be a cold-blooeded realist about the impact).

The only risk is that the rage spiral would then focus on regressive exclusionist male privilege styles–you know how that drill goes. Still, the European Space Agency should boldly go where fashion had gone before. Think of it as “Mad Men in Space.”