Patriotism Among The Ruins

MorrowA recent survey reported that Americans are 37th among industrialized countries in education and Number One in self-confidence.

Obviously it would be better if it were the other way around. Especially since everywhere you turn in the good ole USA you hear about “our institutions” being broken. All the politicians will tell you Washington is broken. They do not go on to explain what they will do (or even if they will do anything) to fix it, but vote for them anyway. Politics itself (themselves?) is/are broken. The Pentagon is broken. The V.A. is broken. Our cities are broken. Our infrastructure is broken. Our public transportation systems are broken. Likewise our public education system, to say nothing of our system of higher education. The book publishing world is broken. So is the art world. Likewise the music world. Hollywood is broken. Our journalism is broken. The NFL and Major League Baseball are broken. Our economy is broken. The free enterprise system is broken. The oceans, the climate, yea, the environment itself is broken.

All this, as well as all the other broken things too numerous to continue mentioning, goes to support the survey’s finding that we are 37th among industrialized countries in education. Educated people with good old American knowhow would not only know how to repair things; they would repair or rebuild them. And then they would make sure to maintain them.

But, given all this unabated breakage, why should we be Number One in self confidence?

Perhaps it is the new practice of rewarding our children for everything. Run a race, come in last and win a trophy anyway. Or could it be all those people who chant “USA, USA, USA!” and assure us this is the greatest country on earth though how would they know since most of them have never even owned a passport? Or maybe it’s the citizens of Lake Woebegone where every child is above average.

Whatever the cause or causes– and it’s fun in a pseudo-sociological kind of way to speculate — our national narcissism is a serious delusion. And patriotism among the ruins is surely not the cure.

Long Day’s Journey into Sunshine

MW Gramercy ParkMy “new” novel is called David Sunshine and it was inspired by my early experiences in the television industry. It includes incidents that are completely true, down to the dialogue, that were so funny I have been dining out on them for years. At the time I took David Sunshine directly to a publisher who signed me up and gave me what in those days was a princely advance. Then backed out of the deal (as they will). At this point, literary agents descended on me but none could get a nibble elsewhere (as they won’t).

The book was a roman de clef and word came back that publishers were afraid of being sued. (“This is a dangerous book,” one anonymous editor had penciled in a margin.) Since all the stories in it were true, I thought we were pretty safe, but no one wanted to chance it. So I put the manuscript away, dusted it off a few months ago and thought that kid who had written it way back then (me) was pretty good. So, because of that and some recent popular interest in 1960s things like “Mad Men” I decided to have it published myself, though a piece of contemporary fiction had now aged into a piece of historical fiction.

As to why I decided it was worthwhile even though it is no longer the expose it once was (all those potential litigants are gone and none of their progeny have even hinted at litigation) is that it is serious literature with a light touch, not unlike Dickens or Mark Twain, and that it concerns itself with the on-going drama of the pursuit of the American Dream which has been with us in novels from The Great Gatsby to The Day of the Locust to All the King’s Men.

Specifically, television at that time seemed at a crossroads. To oversimplify, it could be a force for enlightenment or a craven money machine. David Sunshine is about a fraud and admitted con man who masqueraded as a Philosopher King. At the time, the character upon whom he was based was a media darling, Thus the fear of being sued but, much more likely, I think, the fear of going against the common wisdom – by which I mean the trendy snobbery of the season. It was not the usual kind of sordid expose – it simply exposed him to ridicule. Kiss and tell without much of a kiss.

There is more to the book, of course; primarily about what it was like in those days to be a part of the television industry as the sun had set on its Golden Age and the dawn was beginning to come up over the Vast Wasteland. There was a human cost and many a well-intentioned kid would be ground into bite-sized pieces. However, for all that, the most memorable moments in the book are probably still the funniest ones.

Red Ribbons

Morrow WilsonIf, about three quarters through the last century, had you bet me that there would come such things as 80-page faxes, four-and-a-half inch cell phones that would show wide-screen movies,140 character standard messages, that photography paper would become as rare as the canvas stretched for oil paintings, you would of course have won every time.

I would have lost every time.

I would have said something like there are not that many superficial self-important people in the world to make industries, let alone alter our very culture, with such nonsensical ideas.

It is, I think, no coincidence that, with the rise of these and other similar machines, we began to hear about a Lack of Civility.

But with the coming of the office e-mail, there had seemed to be one democratizing development. And that was that bosses no longer got to dictate letters to their secretaries; bosses had to type their own letters. Or so it seemed. Initially. Innocent me again.

The first shadow of what was really going to happen fell across my path in 1961 and was cast by J. Edgar Hoover. At the time I was working for what was then thought of as a rather second-class mass medium. (Fred Allen had said, “Television is being entertained in your living room by people you wouldn’t have in your living room.”) I leave it to you to number its class today, but in those pre-PBS times there were only a few of us trying to create what was referred to as “quality” television. I was working on a program called OPEN END which, at its best, brought the viewing public interviews with the likes of Nikita Khrushchev and Harry Truman and Edward Kennedy. And I wanted more such luminaries. The Director of the FBI had  never given a television interview and I wrote to invite him to do so.

In those days no letter went unanswered. You could write the subscription manager of LIFE Magazine to order a toaster and you would receive a polite response from that worthy explaining that LIFE was not in that business and suggesting Sears or Montgomery Ward were more likely bets. So, of course, I got a response. Only it was not from Mr. Hoover. It was from a special agent explaining that Mr. Hoover was turning me down.

And that, gentle reader, is what has replaced the boss dictating a letter. Today, again and again, I find that when I write or email or in some way communicate with someone with whom I wish to do quite legitimate business and who has an assistant, it is that assistant, a person I have never met, who tells me that the person I need to talk to will not talk to me.

Remember when they used to ask, “Why settle for second best?”

I’m afraid our age of answering machines, unpaid interns and incivility — in short, our communication age — is why.

Clock-Watching

Morrow WilsonWe are told we all have within us a “sidereal clock” and usually the people who tell us that say we should live by it. What they mean is that we should wake sometime near daybreak and go to bed sometime near nightfall. And that so doing is good for us. Really good for us. Countless studies. Past, present and future. Many on-going.

The most famous short poem supporting this argument is, of course,  by Dr. Benjamin Franklin:

Early to bed and early to rise

Makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.

The most famous use of the concept as a political slogan belongs to Ronald  Reagan, whose “It’s Morning in America”  will no doubt keep stone-cutters busy for the rest of this century.

In fact, if you look up sidereal (yes, I looked it up) it really is a sort of time-keeping devise based on the stars. But, like your grandmother or a farmer you knew growing up or Doctor Somebody Else, guest on The Dr. Somebody Show, I too believe in the sidereal clock — well, at least the clock part.

That is to say, I know there are morning people. However, I also know the early to rise business  can be carried too far. For instance, I know that getting up to do the TODAY show has caused ringing in the ears among NBC employees that lasted till they were reassigned.

But I also know that many people have slept late and become even wealthier than the wage slaves who follow Franklin’s schedule — stage stars, concert pianists and rock stars are examples.

I also recently discovered what, for lack of a better term, I can only call a sidereal calendar, those days of the year during which, seemingly inexplicably, you find yourself feeling very sad or very happy, and there is no reason for it till you realize that something very important happened on this date last year or five years ago or sometime in your past. It makes you know why people celebrate anniversaries, I think.

Three related matters: (1) I don’t believe history records Benjamin Franklin as much of an early-riser himself and he seemed to do all right. And, (2) if getting up early is so good for you, why do I always feel better and more relaxed when I wake up after sleeping late? And (3) and finally, why do those morning people have to be so cheerful about everything — and so damn loud? It cuts into my sleep.

AFRAID OF THE DARK: a brief introduction to Nancy Christie’s short stories

MorrowThe short story ain’t what it used to be. Neither is being a writer. The pride that literary lights used to take in being writers is gone with the Internet, Reality TV, 140 character communication, the well-documented short attention span, the well-recognized dumbing down of our culture. A sort of Song of Roland is heard in the literary land. (And if that reference escapes you, Google it.)

I should say immediately that I am a serious admirer of Nancy Christie’s work. She is by no means a new writer. (Like so many wordsmiths most of her work over the years has been journeyman stuff; she has led the freelance writer/teacher life that so many literary folk are forced to live in these post-literary days.) But if she is not a new writer, her short stories are new writing. Exciting new writing.

The short story, like the poem, is a tough buck. And much as some of us may long for the cultures and days of living, breathing O. Henrys, Guy de Maupassants, Katherine Mansfields and Ernest Hemingways, this sort of literary endeavor, this art form, is pretty much the creature of obscure and non-descript periodicals whose names end in “Quarterly” or “Review” (The Past) or in very, very strange names (apparently from The Future). And therefore, all praise to Pixel Hall Press for publishing this amazing new collection, Traveling Left of Center & Other Stories.

For Nancy Christie’s stories are amazing. The world she shows us is a terrifying world of deluded, demented people. The sort of people who never get a second look or a second thought from you and me. But whose lives are nightmares. These nondescript, unbearably fragile people are, she makes us discover, everywhere, either fearing danger where none exists or failing to see the shadow of the doom that falls across their paths. Often their most ardent wish is a death wish. And what is more terrifying, often when they get their wish, they welcome it.

The world of Nancy Christie’s short stories is a world of both the sudden gratuitous cruelty as well as the prolonged torture that human beings inflict upon each other and upon themselves.

It is a world peopled primarily by desperate, helpless women, sinking into their own deadly quicksand (though there is an occasional feckless man in there somewhere). These short stories are the chronicles of these people’s inevitable individual defeats.

And if all of this sounds dreadful, why praise the writer? Because her world has been so well hidden from us that when she reveals it, we catch our breath as the first readers of Poe or Kafka or the darker passages of Mark Twain’s later works surely must have gasped.

Her world is so real! And just when you think — by which I mean desperately try to escape it through disbelief — “This can’t be!” — a sudden, strange and surprising detail pops up in a strange and surprising place and you are pulled back into facing the truth.

There are writers who are wonderful because they make you say to yourself, “Yes, that’s how it is!” Then there is Nancy Christie, whose writing makes you say, “So — that’s how it is…” You say it with the wonder and dismay of a reader discovering proof of what life is for the secret few — and, you realize with new-found terror, what life can be for all of us.

That is why Nancy Christie is a wonderful writer.

_______________________________________________________________________________

Traveling Left of Center & Other Stories will be published in August of this year.

Please, sir, may I have some more?

Morrow_and_BookOn my very first interview for my new novel, David Sunshine, my goodly hostess asked me, “What is the most difficult question you, as a writer, are asked?”

That is an easy question to answer. The most difficult question is: Will you give me a copy of your book and inscribe it to me?

The reason the question is difficult is that you want to say yes, but you must discipline yourself to say no. Buy it. Then I’ll inscribe it.

This insight came to me as I finished inscribing a copy of David Sunshine to my dentist. Good fellow. Well read. Proud to have a novelist as a patient. I handed him the book and both of us, all smiles, went out to the reception room where the friendly lady behind the desk removed $400 from my plastic vault.

It was then and there I realized that next time my friend the dentist asked for a free book, I was bound to reply, “Sure, if you don’t charge me for this appointment.”

It would be a fair trade, after all. He spent years in dental school and subsequent practice which allowed him to unblushingly charge a fast four hundred for a filling. I spent a very long time in school and longer writing and getting my novel published. He has expenses of course, but then so do I. Having expenses is really nothing more than a vital sign.

George Bernard Shaw, in his incarnation as a music critic, pointed out that the Arts are like no other profession. An audience, pleased with a performer, thinks nothing of shouting “Encore!” And expecting more. If they were pleased by their butcher’s most recent sirloin would they expect a free pot roast next time they visited his shop?

I once sat at table with a well-known and popular visual artist who did quick sketches of everyone there to our delight and never did any of us even think of paying him (though we have all saved and still treasure our little napkin art as we would a small jewel).

Some years ago, in my incarnation as a producer, a colleague and I did all the pre-production work on a Broadway show, built around a particularly beloved entertainer who backed out at the last minute. My right hand man and I huddled together over a cognac bottle and asked ourselves if there is any other business, this side of swindling, where so much money is laid out, so much work done, so much time spent to no avail? If we had chosen to open a bakery, say, we would have gone out on a limb all right, but surely neither of us would have strayed quite so far out.

(Certainly, there is legal recourse to be had in certain cases — very few– but every work of creative and/or performing art requires a commitment so heavy and work so long and hard that only the disappointment when it goes wrong can have the same weight and heft.)

A musical arranger friend of mine (a Grammy-winner) has exactly the same problem when he is asked to give and sign his latest CD. He thinks people just think that players play. After all, what fun it is to dance. And sing. And tell stories. And draw. And sculpt. And paint. And recite. And to pretend to be someone else.

Some years ago the actor Laurence Luckinbill scandalized the Sunday Times Arts Section readership by suggesting that the American Theatre is subsidized, all right. By actors. His audacity in suggesting that artists were entitled to houses and cars and children was more than the New York brunch bunch could bear. And the outrage they expressed in their letters to the editor was white hot.

And here’s where liberals get mighty Tea Partyish. People in the arts have to paddle their own canoes, damn them. Hell, Robert Redford gets 21 million a picture. Peter Max and Stephen King are rich, aren’t they? If you want to gamble, you had better be prepared to lose. After all, many are called, but few are chosen.

Do these erstwhile liberals have a point?

How many rich poets do you know?

Stepping in it

Morrow WilsonOn a recent bright cold day, as I was strolling the sidewalks of New York, I stepped in dog shit. There was a well-spaced trail of it, about the size (but not the color) of ping pong balls scattered along that particular block and other pedestrians were, as I had been, striding forward, unaware of the potential difficulty underfoot. In my case I spent the rest of the way home rubbing the bottom of my soiled shoe on small frozen patches of snow, hoping the brown stuff would somehow be scraped from amongst the tread.

And I thought how times change.

For, in the city’s distant past, all New York pedestrians constantly watched the pavement for dog droppings. And there were a lot of them. On a dark rainy night, when you were in a hurry, you would often slide on them. Quite unintentionally, of course.

Then came the pooper-scooper law. And dog-owners and dog-walkers did what the signs said and cleaned up after their dogs.

Who would have thought such a law would be so suddenly and universally obeyed? Yet it was.

Our new mayor has expressed an interest in cracking down on jay walkers. And a good friend of mine is up in arms about what he believes to be a right of our pedestrians. (And there are no more aggressive pedestrians in the good old USA than New York City pedestrians.)

And, truth to tell, though jay walking is by no means a right, it is surely a set-in-stone custom.

I don’t think he needs to worry about a crackdown on jay walkers. I’m reminded of the time Jack Paar announced on his version of the TONIGHT SHOW: “I want everybody who crossed against the light in Times Square during yesterday’s rush hour to report to the studio.” Big laugh from the (New York) audience, of course.

There is probably a mathematically provable formula to tell us that a law becomes unenforceable once X percentage of people insist on breaking it. Prohibition and marijuana-smoking are two good examples. Of course you can insist on enforcement, but that always leads to bad results: first, the law is disobeyed anyway and therefore all law is disrespected; second, it leads to unfair (because uneven) arrests and therefore more disrespect for all law; and, third, and finally, there spring up new economic opportunities for organized and disorganized crime — though I confess I don’t see how the Mafia can make a buck aiding and abetting jay walkers.

Some of our democratically-elected representatives will try to pass draconian penalties, of course, and some advertising agency will get the account and make Cross at the Green, Not In Between commercials again.

“What are you in for, Lefty?”

“Ten to twenty.”

“Yeah? What for?”

“Tweening.” (Prison slang for jay walking.)

“Hey, man, that’s tough.”

“Yeah. Thank God it was only my first offense.”

Winter Dreams and Advisories

Morrow WilsonI have just returned from my Saturday grocery shopping. And as I sit in my apartment contemplating the beginning of the third snowfall of 2014, and realizing that the supermarket was even more crowded than usual for a Saturday, I understand the reason for the multitude of shopping carts, blocking each other at every turn of the shelves.

The weather. Or, rather, the so-called news of the weather.

Our electronic press, (often referred to as the media) speaking for the National Weather Service, has announced a Winter Weather Advisory which national service, in turn, has just this year begun naming snowstorms after powerful characters in Greek Mythology. (Well, at least one.) And it is time to say, as they do in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas: Hold, enough!

Why?

Well, to begin with, though, as the adage goes, everybody talks about it — I certainly am writing about it — it is no longer true that no one does anything about it. The local news always does something about it. Something numbing to me, but obviously plenty frightening to the desperate souls crowding the supermarket’s narrow aisles to stock up on provisions for what may be, for all they know, the end of the world. And even local news as we know it.

With great excitement, local TV reports every snowstorm in the same monotonous, though thoroughly irritating, way. Time after time. Every time. To wit:

First the weatherman stands before his map, spews cities and temperatures, and predicts inches. He uses phrases like Polar Vortex, (though our snowstorms, unlike Santa, do not come from the North Pole. And a vortex is a spinning motion about a non-existent axis. A spinning snowstorm? A meteorological curve ball? Harder to hit than the fast ball? A  tornado made of snow?)

Then cut to a “senior” New York City reporter, live! (senior, yes; dead, no) at the place where city trucks are being loaded with sand. He spews tons and hours, then his location and name. From there we shift to a live (and lively) young woman in a parka reporting from whence the Sanitation Department’s salt spreaders are being loaded with salt. Tons again, hours again. Location and name again. Next, on to a young man, standing in the narrow traffic vortex (well, he is something of a non-existent axis) at the Manhattan entrance to the Queens Midtown Tunnel. He is bare-headed and his hair is waving in the wind. He shouts to us that there is wind. Snow is falling all around, some of it is falling on him. He shouts that it is “really coming down.” The cars all around him are merging into the tunnel behind him. Traffic is slow and roads are slippery, he shouts. Then he identifies place and self and we return to the pastel studio where the anchor persons tell him to hurry in from the storm, and then one of them estimates what the city’s cost for dealing with the snow could be, as though this is a surprise expense. And back to the dapper, if slightly square, meteorologist who tells us he will tell us more in the next news broadcast.

I submit this is not news; it is olds. And tireds. We could use an advisory if we suddenly were to have summer weather in January, I guess, but according to the calendar it is winter and what other kind of weather do you expect? Advise me when autumn leaves start to fall in May. Advise me when hair is falling instead of rain. Finally, if you have spent even a single winter in, say, Vermont — and I’ve spent five there — a few inches of snow is not Herculean. In Vermont, it is feet and it will stay a long time and it will not be named for anyone famous. In Old New York, Winter Storm Agamemnon will be plowed and shoveled away tomorrow and gone without a trace in a week.

That ends my winter weather advisory.

CHRISTMAS MUSIC: IMMORTALITY KEEPS MULTIPLYING‏

beard 1Oscar Wilde, we are told, once said, “Soon we shall have Christmas at our throats.”

Little could he have imagined that one day, because of mass media, elevator music and a (heavenly?) host of hand-held devises, we would too soon have the sacred holiday at our ears, as well.

And here’s the trouble:

Christmas songs are an ever-multiplying and never-dying phenomenon.

Only Christmas songs could resurrect Gene Autry, Perry Como and Bing Crosby and, likewise, bring Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Torme and Judy Garland back from the grave every year.

I’m old enough to remember when Rudolph was first barred from reindeer games, when Frosty first set up shop and when Santa Claus first steered his team of eight down Santa Claus Lane.  And that’s leaving out The Little Drummer Boy, Silver Bells, A Jolly Holly Christmas, I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, All I Want for Christmas is You, Oh, By Gosh, By Golly, Jingle Bell Rock.  And all the rest.

ALL THE REST!

Douglas MacArthur bid farewell to Congress, the nation and public life with the adage and song title, “Old Soldiers Never Die; They Just Fade Away.”

But while it is true that old Christmas songs never die, it is equally true that they refuse to fade away. Traditional or modern, Come All Ye Faithful and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen are still mandatory and so are Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas and The Christmas Song (Chestnuts roasting and kids dressed up like Eskimos, etc.)

The bad Christmas songs don’t drive out the good. But, then, neither do the good Christmas songs drive out the bad. Nor do the old drive out the new or the new drive out the old. Nothing drives any of them out.  And why? Because Christmastime (old-fashioned word) keeps expanding. Many people complain that Christmas begins immediately following Halloween. Perhaps not yet. Probably soon. However, there can be no question that Thanksgiving and its bete noire Black Friday are now fully accepted as the beginning — even though it’s still November.

Even the kids behind the counters at Starbucks are dressed like elves that black day and the very cardboard cups in which they serve their multitudinous brews are decked like halls.

The War on Christmas? Like most things of Fox News — Bah! Humbug!  It’s Christmas’ War on My Ears that’s got me dreading all those tidings of comfort and joy the last fiscal quarter — I mean, the most wonderful time  —  of the year.