Showing posts with label The Right Stuff. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Right Stuff. Show all posts

Sunday, May 17, 2020

From When We Thought It Was Bad, Before

Setting Fire To The Boat

The Best Blog
September 28, 2011

"Now is there any new business," says Giblets.
"Well the boat's sinking," says me.
"Giblets seems to recall that coming up at the last meeting," says Giblets, "which would make that old business." 
"Well it's more sinking-er than it was last time," says me. "That's kind of new." 
"But I don't know whether to try to put out the fire or try to bail out the boat or scream and panic and scream," says me. "Come to think of it this is really the kind of discussion that calls for a Boat Burning Committee."
"Well it looks like there's no other choice," says Giblets. "The motion is for the rye. All in favor?"
"I think the Boat Burning Committee's first course of action should probably be to figure out if we're on fire now," says me. "And if so, do we Stop Drop and Roll, do we See Something Say Something, or do we Click It or Ticket?"
"In that an abstention?" says Giblets. "Cause that makes it one in favor and one abstention."
"I think we should call for a floor vote," says me. "Any seconds? Anyone?"
"Now for the new business," says Giblets. "Why's it so hot in here?"

posted by fafnir at 9:09 AM

I  wish Giblets would pipe down. Doesn't Giblets know that there is a new television season? The newest one yet? Instead we get all this noise about sinking and burning and imminent demise. We're trying to tune you out Giblets! Do you mind?!

Say, before you drown and stuff, could you sign over the drilling rights to your property? Thanks, cheers, etc.

That may not be Giblets. I'd say you may have overlooked a small zombie problem there. Try shooting him in the head and see how he reacts.

Giblets is half right. You should use the fire to put out the water.  Also figuratively, if you insist.


Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Random Barking: What We Must

How We Carry It

They carried gravity.
--  Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried
This is an old story:  Two Buddhist monks, one older, and the other a young apprentice, went on a pilgrimage to walk around the mountain known as Kailash. This would take many weeks, and would require them to cross gravel and rocky terrain, fields of mountain grass, and an occasional stream pulsing with runoff from the mountain and the Himalayan range of which it is one part.

The journey was (and still is today) an opportunity to perform a moving meditation. The young apprentice didn't have the years of experience in meditative practice as the older monk, and found the going hard. His mind was constantly pulled this way, and that, by the needs of the moment -- heat; thirst; cold in a rain squall; memories of growing up in a harsh life in his village as a boy. While walking, he would become lost in images of this which he desired, and consumed by that which he hated -- and focusing on 'not focusing' was difficult.

He watched the older monk, who seemed to walk without much difficulty (though he was slower than the apprentice, certainly) and without any outward show of exertion; what did this old man have that he didn't? This holier-than-thou, dried-up old turnip?

And as the days went by, the apprentice's resentment grew: This old fuck was probably laughing at him, thinking he was just a stupid young nothing. Well, could he run half a mile without stopping? Could he make love (though that was behind them both in the religious life) for an hour without pause? Could he eat whatever he liked without breaking wind or a sour stomach? No! So, why was this old fuck exalted; just because he was an elder?

One day, they came to a stream -- not deep, but the water moved in its course, swiftly, and could be treacherous if you slipped on unseen rocks in the streambed as you crossed. Standing by the stream was a beautiful young woman (and the apprentice believed he knew beauty when he saw it) -- and, upset. It was obvious that she wanted to cross the stream, but was afraid.

She saw the two men and bowed. The young apprentice was about to step forward, make a courtly bow, and ask if he might help her to cross -- when suddenly, the older monk simply asked if she needed help; with a smile, she said yes, and allowed the old monk to carry her across the rushing stream on his back -- which he did, slowly, but without fanfare.  He set the woman down on the opposite bank, bowed, and accepted her thanks.

The apprentice started crossing the stream, thinking the woman was watching him from the other side; he would show her how it was done! Of course, she would wait to speak with a handsome and talented lad; and so much better than the old fool who had carried her!

He tried to stride easily through the torrent, and was embarrassed when once or twice he slipped. By the time he got to the bank and climbed out of the stream, the woman was already walking away, turning to wave to them both, and continuing on her own journey.

The two monks set off on their own path towards the mountain. The old monk walked on, quiet, one step at a time. At first, the apprentice tried to focus on his meditation, but the image of the old monk carrying the beautiful girl kept intruding. One mile passed after another; the apprentice became more and more agitated, resentful, even hateful.

Finally, the apprentice exploded. "Why did you have to be the one to carry that girl? I could have done it! You're old; you could have fallen and drowned the both of you! Why you??"

The old monk glanced at the apprentice without breaking his stride. "I set her down some time ago," he said. "Why are you still carrying her?"

Friday, February 22, 2019

What We Leave Behind


Charlie Chaplin, 1914

Some spiritual traditions believe in additional dimensions of existence; that the world most of us see as the only reality is one place where thought can be transformed into physicality.

Everywhere we look, there's an idea translated into concrete form, and associated with positive or negative energy -- speeches, laws and regulations; social agreements around money, sexuality, role and status; value. And most obviously, images, novels, poetry; music. Even the simplest transaction between strangers, a word or a look or a tone of voice, carries some form of energy.

Following that perspective, the world might be viewed as the collective energy in all ideas, actions and objects in it at any given moment. In that view, reality is defined by what we as individuals and as a species put into it.

When a playlist of music you're listening to on Soundcloud runs out, an algorithm in the service continues providing a shuffle of tunes with similar themes or instrumentation. In that way, I found myself listening to a melody composed by Charlie Chaplin for his film, A King In New York (if you use Soundcloud, search on "Charlie Chaplin Filmmusic - Mandolin Serenade").

That brought up a stream of images of Chaplin that I carry around in long-term memory -- mostly, his iconic 'Little Tramp' character. His acting and films were so influential that for generations almost any adult, nearly anywhere in the world, might see a drawing of a figure with a postage-stamp moustache, wearing a bowler hat, and say, "Oh, that's Chaplin!" and smile.

Early Little Tramp: Mack Sennett's Caught In The Rain, 1914

Chaplin started as a 24-year-old immigrant from Britain, a contract actor for Mack Sennett's film company in 1914 (the photo at the top of the post; he looked like almost any Dude you might pass on the street today). His Little Tramp routine caught Sennett's eye -- initially a burlesque on an "affable drunkard", a bit loutish and inconsiderate and sloppily boozed. Chaplin's humor was physical, perfect for the trademark slapstick of Sennett's short films, and his comic timing was amazing.

Within four years, Chaplin had refined the Tramp into a more sober, sharper, plucky 'Everyman'. The Tramp became one of Sennett's most popular short-film characters -- and whenever a new Chaplin 'flick appeared in local movie-houses, people paid to see him. Lots of people: Chaplin 'packed them in'.

Kid Auto Races, Venice, California (1914); Chaplin's First Film Appearance
As The Tramp, Then Still The Affable Drunk

Like any artist, Chaplin was all about having as much creative control as possible; eventually, he convinced Sennett he could create better films (with the Tramp, of course) for Sennett's company. When a better financial and creative deal became available with another studio, Chaplin jumped at the chance -- and within four years of landing in America, by 1918, Chaplin was one of the most popular 'stars' in moving pictures, and possibly the most highly paid.

In the years immediately after the First World War, he became a founding partner of United Artists, a film company founded to allow film 'artists' more freedom to experiment with the medium, in contrast to what was becoming a Hollywood studio system. UA allowed Chaplin the control he wanted over his work, and in less than a decade he had created some of the best  American silent films (arguably, some of the best motion pictures) ever made: The Kid, "The Gold Rush"; "The Circus"; "A Dog's Life", and Pay Day, to name a few.

Arguing With The Boss: Pay Day (1922)

Sound motion pictures appeared in 1927. Four years later, Chaplin released City Lights, a film without dialog, only a music soundtrack he had composed, after Talkies had all but buried silent films. He continued in 1936 with another classic, Modern Times, again accompanied only by a soundtrack of Chaplin's music. As an art form, it wouldn't be used again for forty years, until Mel Brooks' Silent Movie.

The western press mocked Hitler in his early days as dictator by referring to him as "the politician with the Chaplin moustache". True to form, Charlie used the humor in that comparison to create a parody of Adolf and his Reich in The Great Dictator (released in 1940) not long after the Second World War began. After 1945, Chaplin made only four other films: "Monsieur Verdoux" (1947), Limelight (1952); "A King In New York" (1957), and A Countess From Hong Kong (1967).

Chaplin's work showcased poor and working people in the early Twentieth century, easily shoved about by authority and manipulated by wealth. His films made clear he was no fan of unbridled capitalism, industrialism or the dehumanizing, assembly-line exploitation of labor. In 1947, when  anti-communist hysteria spawned House Un-American Activities Committee investigations of Red influence in Hollywood, Chaplin was tailor-made to become a target. It didn't help that he had unwittingly made an enemy out of J.Edgar Hoover, whom Chaplin had met in the mid 1920's.

Gossip about Chaplin as a wealthy actor and director involved him and young women under the age of consent -- of his four wives, two were sixteen, and another eighteen, when they married. His Leftist, anti-authoritarian political views were clear. Hoover's Bureau collected gossip (and any information in an FBI file must be legitimate) on thousands of Americans, which Hoover was happy to use for personal and political ends during his 70-year reign.

To Hoover, Chaplin was just another foreign national -- and a Jew, Hoover believed -- with loose morals and radical political sympathies, forcing radical propaganda down the throats of innocent Americans through his films. His interest in Chaplin nearly amounted to obsession: the actor / director was a target of FBI surveillance from the mid-1920's until his death in 1977, and his FBI file may be the largest publicly known (over 2,000 pages) of any prominent public figure in the agency's archives.

As Chaplin left the U.S. in 1952 to attend the London premiere of his film, Limelight, the Justice Department revoked the re-entry permit on his resident alien visa. To be allowed to return, he would have to "submit to an interview concerning his political views and moral behavior". Hoover was behind the move; he had asked England's own Bureau, MI-5, to provide confirmation of Chaplin's communist connections, and for proof that his real name was 'Israel Thornstein'. MI-5 found no proof that Chaplin was a Red, and didn't respond to Hoover's antisemitism.

The FBI's files on Chaplin, released under Freedom Of Information Act requests, show the U.S. government had no serious evidence to prevent his return to America if he had applied for re-entry. While Limelight received praise and success in Europe, Chaplin was smeared as a communist sympathizer in the U.S., and the film boycotted. Frightened and disgusted, after living and working in America for thirty years Chaplin decided not to go back.

... and he didn't, until in 1972 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (which had done little to stand up to Hoover, McCarthy or the HUAC) tried to make amends by voting to award a Lifetime Achievement Oscar to Chaplin "for the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of [the 20th] century."

At 83, having had a series of small strokes and other health issues, unsure how he would be received in a country he believed had rejected and then forgotten him and his work, Chaplin came to Hollywood and was visibly moved when the attending crowd gave him a twelve-minute standing ovation -- the longest tribute of that kind by the Academy in its history.

Easy Street, 1917

Chaplin's Tramp, and other main characters in his films, were ordinary 'folks' -- mostly poor, or at the mercy of Fate and Chance. The world of his films was familiar to the people who could find a nickel to see them, and populated by easily-recognizable archetypes: regular, working-class Joes and Janes; office workers; the bullies and bosses; streetwise kids, shopkeepers and beat cops.

The Tramp -- at the bottom of the social ladder -- had to make a tremendous effort to overcome his circumstances, just to achieve some happiness or justice. He hoped for something better than what he had. And, the stories in Chaplin's movies were transformational, where that Good Ending comes about by helping an Other -- the Girl; the Child; the Friend.

The Kid, 1921

In The Kid, the Tramp finds and raises a little orphaned boy -- whom he had initially wanted nothing to do with -- then rescues him from the clutches of a brutal County Orphan Commissioner, using the Tramp's poverty as the excuse to take the child away. You know when he embraces the boy that the Tramp loves him, will protect and care for the Kid as if he were his own. They're still dirt poor, but the little boy is safe -- and in a world where anything can happen, that's the point. It's everything.

City Lights (1931)

In City Lights, possibly Chaplin's best film (it was his favorite work), the Tramp is poor and homeless, ignored by most people, teased by a pair of wiseass newsboys -- but meets, becomes friends with (and almost immediately falls for) a beautiful blind girl, reduced to selling flowers on the street to help support herself and her grandmother. Whenever they meet, she gives him a small, white rose.

When he speaks, she mistakes his voice for that of a wealthy millionaire she's heard in the neighborhood where she sells her flowers, and (more out of embarrassment than some attempt to impress her) the Tramp allows her to believe it's true.

Later, when the Girl falls ill, the Tramp learns she might recover her sight -- but only through an expensive medical procedure. He works to save the money; after more plot twists, the operation is paid for and a success. Her vision restored, the Girl is able to open a flower shop with her grandma -- where she hopes the 'wealthy millionaire' who helped her will appear one day and sweep her off her feet.

Meanwhile, The Tramp, having been tossed in jail after the usual comic misunderstandings, is now even shabbier than when we first met him -- 1930-31 was the worst year of the Great Depression in the U.S. He shuffles along the street, mocked and teased by the same pair of newsboys.

Suddenly, the Tramp sees a small white rose in the gutter and picks it up -- the same flower the blind Girl used to give him. He turns, and is standing in front of the Girl's flower shop; she's sitting inside the front window, and has been watching the antics of the newsboys with this ... street person. She and her grandmother share a laugh; they think it's funny.

When he sees her, The Tramp is overjoyed; she's whole and healthy, but suddenly he's ashamed: she's now a respectable shop owner, and he's not.

The Last Scene Of City Lights; Critic James Agee Described It As
"The greatest piece of acting ever committed to celluloid"

The flower he'd picked up in the gutter is losing its petals; the Girl comes out of the shop to offer him a new rose, and a half-dollar. He carefully accepts the flower; she takes his hand to give him the coin -- and from the feel of his hand, the texture of his coat, all familiar to her when she was blind -- she suddenly realizes who he is. "You?" she asks; the Tramp nods. "You can see now?" he asks; she replies, "I can see now" -- meaning, it wasn't a wealthy man she had been waiting for, but the one with a heart, who helped her.

As he looks back at The Girl, the Tramp smiles. In his expression is every person who ever hoped for good luck in a hard world, a chance to care deeply about someone and have them care about you -- and barely able to believe, after everything, that it's come true. The screen fades to black.

We can't know the sum of the actions of Chaplin, the man. We do know more about the effect of his artistic output on the world -- and it's much greater than "making motion pictures the art form of the [Twentieth] century".

From the perspective of the world being the sum of what is put into it -- even though they drew on earlier forms of storytelling, Chaplin's movies helped define what the motion picture medium could be. His films were moral, in the same way as Dickens' serialized novels: they showcased human folly and the absurd nature of life; they reminded us how we ought to treat each other. How our societies should reflect that, not just to serve as vehicles for commerce and acquisition, avarice, and domination.

Chaplin's films weren't meant to portray a perfect world, no matter that some of their plot resolutions might seem like fairy-tale-magic. They presented hopes human beings have for how life might be, how things might turn out if the Fates were kind -- and that on occasion, our hopes can be made concrete and real, in this world. His movies affected people, first; he made us laugh. He still does.

In These Times, it might seem that Chaplin's work is outdated, less recognizable, but something tells me that's not the case: Chaplin is still iconic. And if we have an opportunity to add to the world even a fraction of what he left behind in his art, we'll have done something important -- if only because we need so much more of that now.

MEHR, Mit einer offensichtlichen Sache, die ich vermisst habe:  I was adding this 'Mehr', when something happened, and the entire post was deleted. No hope of recovery. Just - gone. It was like hiking for miles to get to the truck to take you home, and it just pulls away; you're eating dust, screaming at the top of your lungs, and know nothing can help. 

JEDOCH, Es Ist So: The post was open in the browser on my smarter-than-me phone -- and if I wanted to Man Up and transcribe retype it, from scratch, it would be remade.  

UND So Wurde Es Gemacht War: But Dear Fucking God Jesus and the Yeti, I never want to go through that again.

UND SO WEITER: The Girl Who Refused To Be Mrs Mongo said, "You write about Chaplin and his politics, and you miss the final speech from The Great Dictator? Shame!"


Friday, November 11, 2016

Leonard Cohen ( 1934 - 2016 )

Closing Time

Goddamn it. Knew the news was coming, but wasn't ready for it just now.

Ah we're lonely, we're romantic
And the cider's laced with acid
And the holy spirit's crying, where's the beef?
And the moon is swimming naked
And the summer night is fragrant
With a mighty expectation of relief

So we struggle and we stagger
Down the snakes and up the ladder
To the tower where the blessed hours chime
And I swear it happened just like this
A sigh, a cry, a hungry kiss
The gates of love they budged an inch
I can't say much has happened since
But closing time
Closing time
Closing time
Closing time 

 Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
Everybody knows the war is over
Everybody knows the good guys lost
Everybody knows the fight was fixed
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
That's how it goes
Everybody knows

Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died
When people talk about Leonard, they fail to mention his melodies, which to me, along with his lyrics, are his greatest genius. Even the counterpoint lines—they give a celestial character and melodic lift to every one of his songs. As far as I know, no one else comes close to this in modern music. Even the simplest song, like ‘The Law,’ which is structured on two fundamental chords, has counterpoint lines that are essential, and anybody who even thinks about doing this song and loves the lyrics would have to build around the counterpoint lines.

His gift or genius is in his connection to the music of the spheres. In the song ‘Sisters of Mercy,’ for instance, the verses are four elemental lines which change and move at predictable intervals . . . The song just comes in and states a fact. And after that anything can happen and it does, and Leonard allows it to happen...

‘Sisters of Mercy’ is verse after verse of four distinctive lines, in perfect meter, with no chorus, quivering with drama. ... This is a deceptively unusual musical theme, with or without lyrics. But it’s so subtle a listener doesn’t realize he’s been taken on a musical journey and dropped off somewhere, with or without lyrics.
I see no disenchantment in Leonard’s lyrics at all. There’s always a direct sentiment, as if he’s holding a conversation and telling you something, him doing all the talking, but the listener keeps listening. He’s very much a descendant of Irving Berlin... [whose] songs did the same thing. Berlin was also connected to some kind of celestial sphere.
And, like Leonard, he probably had no classical music training, either. Both of them just hear melodies that most of us can only strive for. Berlin’s lyrics also fell into place and consisted of half lines, full lines at surprising intervals, using simple elongated words. Both Leonard and Berlin are incredibly crafty. Leonard particularly uses chord progressions that seem classical in shape. He is a much more savvy musician than you’d think.
-- Bob Dylan 
I loved you for your beauty
But that doesn't make a fool of me
You were in it for your beauty too
And I loved you for your body
There's a voice that sounds like god to me
Declaring, (declaring) declaring, declaring that your body's really you
And I loved you when our love was blessed
And I love you now there's nothing left
But sorrow and a sense of overtime

I know there’s a spiritual aspect to everybody’s life, whether they want to cop to it or not. It’s there, you can feel it in people—there’s some recognition that there is a reality that they cannot penetrate but which influences their mood and activity. So that’s operating. That activity at certain points of your day or night insists on a certain kind of response. Sometimes it’s just like: ‘You are losing too much weight, Leonard. You’re dying, but you don’t have to cooperate enthusiastically with the process.’ Force yourself to have a sandwich.

What I mean to say is that you hear the Bat Kol (divine voice). You hear this other deep reality singing to you all the time, and much of the time you can’t decipher it... At this stage of the game, I hear it saying, ‘Leonard, just get on with the things you have to do.’ It’s very compassionate at this stage. More than at any time of my life, I no longer have that voice that says, ‘You’re fucking up.’ That’s a tremendous blessing, really.

-- Leonard Cohen / September, 2016
And everybody knows that the Plague is coming
Everybody knows that it's moving fast
Everybody knows that the naked man and woman
Are just a shining artifact of the past
Everybody knows the scene is dead
But there's gonna be a meter on your bed
That will disclose
What everybody knows

And everybody knows that you're in trouble
Everybody knows what you've been through
From the bloody cross on top of Calvary
To the beach of Malibu
Everybody knows it's coming apart
Take one last look at this Sacred Heart
Before it blows
And everybody knows
And I missed you since the place got wrecked
And I just don't care what happens next
Looks like freedom but it feels like death
It's something in between, I guess
It's closing time
closing time
closing time
closing time


MEHR, Several Hours Later:  The last thing I wanted to do was write a post about this man that had even a hint of self-reference, but remembered a thirty-year-old conversation. 

A long time ago: someone said in a discussion of Sufis and 'The Work' that "There are a lot of people around who say they're looking for answers, want self-enlightenment, and they present a posture -- removed, serious, aesthetic. Like a parody of the Holy Man. And the feeling I get is, they're not authentic. The Sufis I've met have been raw and real, man; There's grit in their voices -- they're like Blues singers. They've been around the fucking block, they've done some things, and they know what really matters. They're not saints -- 'rogue sage'; you know? -- but about the Big Things, you can trust them."

Cohen loved the Blues. He sang them, no matter what style his songs were.  He spoke simply, straight from the heart, about The Big Questions.  His music, the way he lived his life, was grappling with those questions and his human condition, and ours, unashamedly. He was no saint, but an honest and sincere seeker of Truth -- and his music was a commentary on that stumbling around in the dark. His work was illuminated by a long family Rabbinical tradition; he was born with a Heart On Fire.

His songs were in the language of missed chances, relationships spoiled by ego or greed or a simple misunderstanding; ecstatic revelry and bone-crushing disappointment. When he sang politics, it was about choice and betrayal from the level of someone in the street. He told you: This is what happened to me. I don't know what all this is. I don't know what I'm doing, either; you're not alone out here. It was like the end of Moby Dick: A thing happened; buoyed up by a coffin, I came back to tell thee.

And what he sang about was a reminder that everything in this world was part of something else  -- The Big Questions, maybe. And he sang about that all the way to the end -- "You Want It Darker", his album released in October.

People sense how much truth they're being told by others, moment to moment, moving through the world. The number of people who speak in an authentic voice that we recognize, instinctively, as being true are very few. Poets can do this; Cohen was a poet, first, which is how I met him (only discovered later that the guy had albums of music, too, which made sense). From his work, he was recognizable as being as egotistical, confused, scheming, greedy; fucked up; kind, generous; lonely and longing -- as human, as I am. He had the energy and talent to share his particular vision, and it resonated with a wide audience.

When someone like that leaves the room, I grieve, because they're so few. And I'm pretty damned sad (The Best Friend texted back "Goddamned shit storm November" when I told them Cohen had died). I understand: never knew the man personally; it's the connections on so many levels to memory and hope and experience that add to the emotions. And there was Fucking Tuesday; and, today.  We're all going to have to leave the room -- if I can bow out in the same frame of mind, with the same intent as he was reported to have, that would be an act of grace.

Another Mensch leaves us. Now he knows what we do not -- but he was frankly curious, without much fear, as to whatever that is.

Also, remembering the day, and Absent Friends. "We Have Done So Much With So Little For So Long That We Could Do Everything With Nothing Forever" (1969 - 1971)

Friday, November 4, 2016

Reprint Heaven: Good Night, Uncle Walter

And That's The Way It Is
(The Googlegerät reminds: Today is Uncle Walter's birthday. This, from 2009)

Walter Cronkite 1916 - 2009 (CBS News)

I know that the memories and worldview of Boomers are things of derision for more 'relevant' generations; who the hell cares what we remember. However, for most of my childhood and early adulthood, there wasn't a single major event that didn't have the voice of Walter Cronkite narrating it.

The Cuban Missile Crisis; The arrival of The Beatles; John F. Kennedy's assassination on November 22, 1963; the war in Vietnam (1962-1975); Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy's assassinations in 1968; Chicago during that years' Democratic Convention; the first landing of human beings on Earth's Moon on July 20, 1969; the Watergate hearings in 1973; the collapse of Richard Nixon's presidency and resignation in 1974...

...and it wasn't only the signal events between 1962 and 1981 which Cronkite narrated which made him an icon. It wasn't even the thousands of mundane items that he introduced or reported on for over twenty years. It was the sound of Cronkite's voice. Even if you only had the CBS evening news on in the background, that voice added to what made up the continuity of our times.

Cronkite represented a connection to news reporting that reflects the Reality of what was occurring (he wouldn't have made it as a Fox Entertainment 'journalist'). He was also willing to court physical risk to discover what that Reality was, and translate the essence, the Truth of it, as best he could. Beyond all that, being a reporter was his job; he wanted to do it as best he could.

As a 25-year-old AP reporter, Cronkite covered America's war in the Mediterranean and Europe at its beginning. From Operation Torch in North Africa in November of 1942, he went to England -- where he gained a reputation for going on more 8th Air Force daylight bombing raids over Germany than any other reporter. On D-Day in 1944, Cronkite was one of the first correspondents ashore; later that year, he was landing by glider behind German lines with the 101st Airborne in Operation Market Garden. He was in Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. And he covered the Nuremberg trials of the twenty-one major nazi war criminals.

In 1962, CBS created the 30-minute news-program format. News on the radio had been commonplace for forty years, but it had never been presented on television. The program would go out live in New York, but taped for delayed broadcast in Central and Pacific time, to be received in millions of American homes at 6:00 PM, Monday through Friday. It was an innovation -- and some thought, risky: Would people accept the idea of a news program broadcast when most people were eating dinner? More important -- would they watch the commercials? And CBS' choice to be the lead commentator, the "anchor" for a lineup of filmed segments filed by other reporters, was Walter Cronkite.

CBS' decision was based on the fact that he appeared so completely mainstream, so inoffensive. His baritone voice sounded authoritative, like the radio news broadcasters most people were familiar with -- H.V. Kaltenborn, or Edward R. Murrow, who had moved on to television. Cronkite was a solid, thorough reporter who had paid his dues; he had a reputation for "Iron Pants" -- sitting still through the most boring assignments, never sounding or appearing anything but interested, never losing his temper or melting down on the air.

And unlike Murrow, Walter had no apparent interest in using the television soapbox he was about to be handed to express any... uncomfortable opinions. He didn't like to throw controversial questions in an interview, and was known to toss "Softballs" to subjects like Eisenhower, Nixon or Kennedy. When Murrow had taken on Joseph McCarthy and the endless 'Red Scare' hearings of his Senate committee, CBS lost advertising revenue. That fact was not lost on CBS' Chairman, the redoubtable William S. Paley, who had to approve the choice of Cronkite for this new venture.

The format was a hit. Apparently, people did watch television news while they ate their evening meals, and liked it. The Neilsen ratings agency said so, and the advertising revenue began to roll in. The other major networks copied CBS, a sure sign of a winning trend. CBS affiliate stations (like the main network, dependant on advertising dollars) loved Walter because he was making them money.

People at home, watching their RCA or GE or Magnavox Teevees from the dinner table, instead of each other, thought Cronkite was so... trustworthy. People had liked Edward R. Murrow -- but when he broadcast, Ed sounded like some critical relative, lecturing you about a choice of meat for dinner, or scolding your children for running with scissors. You knew he was smart, but America doesn't like smart that much; it's not neighborly. Nobody really likes someone better than you.

But -- if you had "accidentally" borrowed money from the 4-H petty cash and couldn't pay it back; or couldn't decide whether Polaroid at $3.50/share was a good deal; or your girlfriend had missed her period... for 1962 America, Cronkite looked like the Dad or Uncle you could confide in. He'd never lecture you like that prissy Murrow, or sound like that undertaker, Chet Huntley; or that Mr. Peepers-type with the glasses, John Chancellor, on NBC.

You could see just by looking at him that Uncle Walter had been around; he knew what was what, but somehow, it hadn't changed him. He didn't believe he was better than you. He'd give you straight advice. And even if you'd utterly and irredeemably fucked up, and his advice was to face the music and dance... you'd know he was right and still go away feeling good about yourself.

Cronkite had come up as a reporter when radio was king, and the best-known broadcast commentators all had signature 'hooks' -- Murrow's opening was the famous, "This -- is London", during the Blitz in 1940; Walter Winchell's was, "Good Evening, America, and all the ships at sea". Lowell Thomas' closing line was, "So long, until tomorrow!" So, early in the CBS Nightly News, Cronkite adopted his own famous signature close, which he would repeat for the next nineteen years: "And that's the way it is: Friday, July Seventeenth, Nineteen Sixty-Four; this is Walter Cronkite. For CBS News -- goodnight." It stayed in our heads as well.

And when JFK (initially concerned that Cronkite was a Republican, and so might skew his reportage -- he wasn't; he was a registered Independent) was murdered, it was Uncle Walter who broke the bad news, first, to the nation -- and who sat up with the country for hour after hour over the next days, through the pomp and circumstance and unbelief. More than Chet Huntley or David Brinkley's voices on NBC, or Eric Sevaried's on ABC, it was Walter Cronkite's voice that bridged that period between the end of Camelot, and whatever was to come next.

All this gave him the necessary credentials when, five years later, Cronkite publicly questioned the wisdom of America's involvement in Vietnam. The Pentagon Papers would reveal that the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident (pretext for the next eight years of escalating war in South Vietnam) had been a sham. Cronkite, who had excellent sources, might have suspected the war had been engineered, but never questioned it on those grounds. Like many of his viewers, he had supported America's mission in Vietnam -- but only until it was plain that we were mired in a conflict that could not be won under post-WW2 rules of engagement: It wasn't the kind of classic, "Good War" between Light and Darkness which he had seen first-hand.

After a series of journeys to Vietnam and long interviews with everyone from Diplomats and Generals to Grunts, Cronkite came to the firm conclusion that we couldn't win. He wasn't interested in the details, so much as the broader questions -- In a world with nuclear weapons, can we win this war? And, is it worth it? He believed another solution was possible, and necessary; and it would include pulling our troops back from Southeast Asia.

It was 1968, with Martin and Bobby already both assassinated. It was an election year defined by the war; by three years of race riots, National Guard soldiers in the streets. It was a year defined by the Counterculture, and by an antidraft, antiwar movement. Cronkite decided to do what CBS' executives never though he would -- to tell America that uncomfortable truth from behind the Anchor's desk on the CBS Nightly News. In a closing commentary reminiscent of Edward R. Murrow, Uncle Walter said "In this reporter's opinion", that the Vietnam war simply wasn't winnable; "that perhaps we should say, 'We did the best we could'," and bring our boys home.

President Lyndon Johnson, watching the broadcast, knew it was a watershed moment: If Walter Cronkite had said America should pull out of Vietnam, Johnson told an aide when the broadcast was over, "then I've lost the war". Little more than a week later, LBJ went on national television to say he "would not seek, nor will I accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President."

Cronkite and his CBS team in Vietnam, 1967 (Public Domain)

Cronkite broke the code of silence that made up so much of life in post-World War Two America; he was calling things by their right names, reality with a Capital R. I remember watching Cronkite deliver that message in 1968. It was the sort of moment I hoped some other American broadcast journalist would come to during the "Lil' Boots" Bush years. Finally, Keith Olbermann did, a little late in the day, and not entirely because he had come to a heartfelt conclusion about the disaster of Lil' Boots' presidency... but also because it meant good ratings for MSNBC, something Cronkite would have barely considered.

Our leaving Vietnam would take another four years, and cost additional thousands of American lives. Richard Nixon was elected claiming he had a "secret plan" to end the war. That turned out to be more escalation, CIA assassination squads; J. Edgar Hoover's COINTELPRO; the 1970 invasion of Cambodia and a heavy crackdown on antiwar demonstrations; The Plumbers and black-bag jobs and 'Enemies Lists', and cozy relations between the GOP and the Mob-run Teamsters' Union. After the killing of four students at Kent State in Ohio, Cronkite lashed out at Nixon's policies, and his stand gave other reporters and networks the courage to voice their own opinions in closing segments.

In response, Nixon put heavy pressure on William Paley to muzzle Cronkite's criticism; then, Vice-President Spiro Agnew went after America's media in a series of speeches, essentially accusing national news outlets, and figures like Cronkite, of treason.

Nixon's pressure and threats had a chilling affect. In 1970, after a broadcast criticizing the government's attempt to threaten journalists into silence, ABC News anchor Frank Reynolds was forced to resign. The war went on; bombings of North Vietnam escalated; the whole period was a reminder of the blacklisting and censorship of the McCarthy period -- which Cronkite's CBS colleague, Edward R. Murrow, had famously stood up to.

For network television news anchors, Murrow's courage in criticizing the bullying atmosphere of fear which Tail Gunner Joe created set the bar for future television journalists to defend their ability to inform Americans what is happening in, and to, their country. Cronkite maintained that tradition, not backing down despite the obvious threats made by The President -- and Cronkite knew Nixon was famous for using the power of his office to take revenge. It helped that CBS' executives stood behind him (Something they didn't do for Dan Rather, thirty years later -- but, in these days, truth is highly overrated in the news entertainment industry).

Even backstopped by CBS, Walter had professionally put his ass on the line. He knew it didn't matter what his reputation was, whether he was considered a presence on television. Cronkite knew the other side of Murrow's defiance of McCarthy; Murrow had been a legend, too -- and came within a hairsbreadth of being fired (rent Good Night and Good Luck, again) by the same Bill Paley whom Nixon was calling to express his wattle-jowled displeasure.

At the same time, Cronkite had been as close to actual combat situations as a noncombatant can; something like Nixon or Agnew coming at him only made him angry. He must've had a moment of satisfaction, watching Agnew forced to resign under indictment for talking over $300,000 in bribes when Governor of Maryland; and later, watching a paranoid, self-destructive and self-pitying Nixon, pinned down by Watergate, resign himself. And, as with JFK's assassination almost eleven years before, the voice of Uncle Walter took us from the "long national nightmare" to whatever would come next.

People who didn't grow up with him as a fixture won't understand the context within which he was important, or how he's missed. It isn't nostalgia for a simpler time -- it's that in 2009, television news is simply another form of corporate entertainment. It's always been an Establishment mouthpiece in one way or another -- except for people like Cronkite, who believed that facts didn't need to be presented like movie trailers, or with political spin. Cronkite intensely disliked the media style of Limbaugh, Wiener and O'Reilly because for him, it distorted the Truth, the Facts: Fox and other networks' use of this kind of format wasn't about news, but personalities, and a political agenda.

Few people have the opportunity to reach so many other human beings, a fixture in our cultural memory, without being corrupted somehow in the process. After nineteen years as CBS' anchor, Cronkite retired -- like any working person, putting in their twenty and then calling it quits -- and didn't look back.

Cronkite never used status for personal gain or to create another career. He always reminded me of another man from Missouri, Mark Twain -- though without the bite of wit, or his obvious humor; but still an honest and quintessentially American observer. He never ran for office; never appeared in films (in 1984, approached to appear as himself in the film version of The Right Stuff, even with his interest in America's space program, Cronkite said no; they had to use Eric Sevareid instead).

He declined, gracefully, to capitalize on his image in a way that would be accepted as normal today (and I shudder to think what that says about contemporary culture). David Halberstam, another legend as a reporter and writer, once observed about Cronkite that "He liked, indeed loved, being 'Walter Cronkite', being around all those celebrities -- but it was as if he could never quite believe that he was a celebrity himself."

Cronkite participated in developing the Illusion Factory television has become, but I think the reason he never took his status seriously was that he never confused Walter Cronkite, the image and voice on millions of television screens, with Walter Cronkite, a guy doing a job. It may seem incredible, especially with the cynical take many of us have on the age we live in, but I swear it's probably just that simple.

He was as ambitious as the next person; when some lucky breaks arrived in his job, he took them. But when he saw something he believed was wrong, he judged his chances and then stood up and spoke out -- even at the risk of losing that job. He worked for a living, tried to meet his bosses' expectations, and (because he was very much aware of his own status) live up to the standards of his profession as he saw them; doing a 'good job' mattered. At night, he went home to his wife and children.

Regarding himself, he never said, Hey, what's all the fuss about?; he knew. He was, after all, like the Uncle Walter we believed he was, the guy who had been around -- but for all that had been unchanged. Unlike media personalities in 2009, Cronkite was a reporter who never believed in his own press.

And that's the way it is.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Participation Is Complicity

Choose The Form Of The Destructor

Bloom County; October, 1988 (© Berke Breathed)
HC: So I bet you're wasting your vote on Jill Stein.
DOG: [Affectless Stare]
HC: Seriously; are you gonna vote Stein?
DOG: I'm not voting.
HC: You're kidding.
DOG: No. My vote doesn't count, and I refuse to give the current electoral system and this election in particular any legitimacy. And even if this were an election between two different candidates, it wouldn't matter. I would've voted for Bernie, but even that would be misplaced nostalgia for Old Days that really never were.
HC: [Pause] But it's a historic election. The first woman President.
DOG: I'll manage to live with myself.
HC: Fuck you.
[I should mention: These conversations, between a True Believer Of The Cult Of She (HC), and myself (Dog), have actually happened in the depths of corporate America where I dwell, and are not entirely a parody of encounters between a Hillaryite Colleague and The Pjoepf at his Place O' Labor, as occasionally chronicled over at The Soul Of America.]

In the long-ago land of 1988, an impossible time before many of you were ever born, there was another Pestidential contest, between Blue-Blood Owner "Poppy" Bush (father of Greasy George, the Peevish Dullard; son of Prescott Bush, who reportedly supported an attempt to overthrow the U.S. government under that socialist, FDR), Vice-Pestident under Saint Ronald The Dim -- and Michael Dukakis, the much shorter and also stiff, less animated Governor of Massachusetts in the era before 'Der Mittster', Romney.

America's economy had been stuttering in that 1988.  There had been an actual double-dip Recession in 1981-83 under Saint Ronald (as the early waves of globalization began eliminating the steel industry, and moving manufacturing offshore). But Ronaldo El Magnifico, conqueror of Jamaica, performed that famous Voodoo Economics and made it all better.

Then, in 1987, the Iran-Contra Affair became public knowledge -- something Poppy had direct involvement in -- and later that year, the largest single drop in the U.S. stock market on October 19, 1987.  Saint Ronald could not run for a third term, and was tired. There were disquieting stories that he seemed... uh, different... distracted, and that Nancy was being kept closely in the loop on whatever Ronnie needed to do as Our Leader.

The 1988 election was a spirited contest, which resulted in Poppy rousing himself enough to say, "Read My Lips: No New Taxes", and Mike saying in response to a question that Americans want "Good Jobs At Good Wages".  Poppy was known as "The Wimp".  Mikey, much shorter, was known as "The Shrimp".

Except for the fact that the economy seemed to be tanking again, enthusiasm for the election seemed lackluster, manufactured. Many Americans were understandably confused at having to choose, for leadership of the American Ship O' State, between an old-money, ex-DCI at CIA, Skull-n-Boneser with some involvement in drugs-for-arms and Latin right-wing death squads, or a Governor whose greatest achievement appeared to be taking a short joy ride in a tank for the benefit of the press.

Berke Breathed, observer of the American scene, beloved humorist in the vein of Mark Twain and Will Rogers, but wielding a pen and brush (and way better than that patrician Yaleboy, Trudeau), was the author of a daily comic strip, Bloom County, which had a color Sunday supplement (you'll have to look up "daily comic strip" and "color Sunday supplement"; this was before graphic novels and Beyonce and Game Of Tones on DVR teevee).

In October, 1988, before the election, Breathed submitted (in one Dog's opinion) one of the classic humorous commentaries on voting in a Republic where we face Hobson's Choice ("[an allegedly] free choice in which only one thing is offered. Because a person may refuse to accept what is offered, the two options are taking it, or taking nothing"). I shouldn't have to explain how this relates to America's politics, if not Western politics in general.

(If I do, you are not paying attention and so will be surprised when someone suggests perhaps it's time to get rid of the Twenty-Second Amendment, and so enter, by stage Right, President Erwin Rexall. And I get to pee on your leg.)

Opus the Penguin goes to vote, and the result is -- well, obvious, as are all the connections you can see, and many we can't.  The result of participation in this mutant circus freakshow election cycle will be exactly the same -- and for myself, I can't go walking around with The Sign Of The Beast (my head covered in a wad of used green chewing gum) for all to see.

This was originally issued as a color Sunday comic, but no color version exists on the Intertubes that I could find; the amateurish attempt to add a bit of color is the best you can expect for a Dog who has to pick up crayons with his soft mouth parts, and all while at the Place O' Labor™.

(Clicky = Bigger, Happier. © 1988, 2014 Berke Breathed; Washington Post Co.)

MEHR, Mit Wir Vermissen Opus:
(Clicky = In Einem Augenblick, Ein Grosser Cartoon)

Thursday, October 13, 2016

And The Winner Is

-- Mr Robert A. Zimmerman of Duluth, Minn.

Obverse Of The Nobel Medal For Literature (Wikipedia / Creative Commons)
Look out, Kid / It's somethin' ya did
God knows when but you're doin' it again
-- Subterranean Homesick Blues (1965)
So many tracks playing in the ol' Brain Radio right now, connected to people, places, emotions.
Congratulations, Bob. This is way better than being asked to claim your Tub Of Slaw.
He is the first American to win the prize since the novelist Toni Morrison, in 1993. The announcement, in Stockholm, was a surprise: Although Mr. Dylan, 75, has been mentioned often as having an outside shot at the prize, his work does not fit into the literary canons of novels, poetry and short stories that the prize has traditionally recognized.

“Mr. Dylan’s work remains utterly lacking in conventionality, moral sleight of hand, pop pabulum or sops to his audience,” Bill Wyman, a journalist, wrote in a 2013 Op-Ed essay in The New York Times arguing for Mr. Dylan to get the award. “His lyricism is exquisite; his concerns and subjects are demonstrably timeless; and few poets of any era have seen their work bear more influence.”
... this is snarky, mayhaps -- but when Them Swedes give the same prize to Laurie Anderson, I'll really sit up and take notice. And, Laurie recently released Heart Of A Dog.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Reprint Heaven Forever: Still Missed

John Lennon: October 9, 1940

Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup,
They slither while they pass; they slip away across the universe
Pools of sorrow, waves of joy are drifting through my open mind,
Possessing and caressing me
Jai guru de va om
Nothing's gonna change my world,
Nothing's gonna change my world

Images of broken light which dance before me like a million eyes,
That call me on and on across the universe;
Thoughts meander like a restless wind inside a letter box
They tumble blindly as they make their way,
Across the universe
Jai guru de va om
Nothing's gonna change my world,
Nothing's gonna change my world.

Sounds of laughter shades of earth are ringing
Through my open views; inviting and inciting me
Limitless undying love which shines around me
Like a million suns; it calls me on and on
Across the universe
Jai guru de va om
Nothing's gonna change my world,
Nothing's gonna change my world...

Across The Universe (Lennon / McCartney, 1969)

We don't care what flag you're waving,
We don't even want to know your name,
We don't care where you're from or where you're going,
All we know is that you came;

You're making all our decisions,
We have just one request of you,
That while you're thinking things over,
Here's something you just better do:

Free the people, now,
Do it do it do it do it do it now.
Free the people, now,
Do it do it do it do it do it now.

Well we were caught with our hands in the air,
Don't despair paranoia is everywhere,
We can shake it with love when we're scared,
So let's shout it aloud like a prayer:

Free the people, now,
Do it do it do it do it do it now.
Free the people now,
Do it do it do it do it do it now

We understand your paranoia,
But we don't want to play your game;
You think you're cool and know what you are doing,
666 is your name;
So while your jerking off each other,
You better bear this thought in mind:
Your time is up you better know it,
But maybe you don't read the signs

Free the people now,
Do it do it do it do it do it now.
Free the people now,
Do it do it do it do it do it now.

Well you were caught with your hands in the kill,
And you still got to swallow your pill,
As you slip and you slide down the hill,
On the blood of the people you killed

Stop the killing now,
Do it do it do it do it do it now.
Stop the killing now,
Do it do it do it do it do it now.
Free the people now,
Do it do it do it do it do it now...

The Soul Of America reminded me that I missed the actual day. Normally, I put up a memorial on December 10th. Better, I think, to celebrate someone's birth.

Even though I was around when their music was brand-new, and have a perfect memory of hearing She Came In Through The Bathroom Window, terrifically stoned while standing on top of a sandbagged bunker on VCM359 outside Nah Trang, I can't say I listen to Beatles music too much myself, these days (though I did listen to the Magical Mystery Tour album last weekend, by chance, while padding through the Haight).

So:  Absent Friends. Happy Birthday, John.

Monday, August 6, 2012


Curiosity Lands

Curiosity Parachuting Toward Martian Surface, Seen By Orbiting
Satellite (Photo: NASA; Talking Points Memo)

One Of The First Images Sent Back By Curiosity After Landing
(Photo: New York Times; NASA TV, Via Reuters)

I grew up as a child of the Space Age, not far from one of the major launch sites that could conjure up names out of a mythic past: Mercury; Gemini; Apollo; Thor, Atlas, Saturn. The deep rumble of a rocket engine tearing through the sky was a regular experience; everyone stopped what they were doing to look up and watch a point of fire at the top of a long, white contrail arching out over the ocean.

It was also normal to see some of them explode, destroyed by a signal from ground controllers as they veered off course. Early one winter evening in the early 1960's, I stood looking out my bedroom window at a launched missile that had clearly gone off course. Its contrail pinwheeled around behind it; what I didn't know at the time was that I could only have seen this spinning effect if the rocket was corkscrewing through the air, nose-on, right in my direction. Suddenly it disappeared in a flash and grey-black cloud, the report of the explosion arriving a moment later and black specks of debris falling to the ground. I went back to reading a comic book.

Missile Contrail At Sunset; This One Was A Success

I collected everything I could get my hands on in magazines about space, the solar system, rocketry and NASA; I had a collection of every Mission Patch ever made. I met John Glenn (who genuinely seemed uncomfortable with being famous) for two minutes in 1963 and was -- well, on the Moon for the rest of the day.

The notion of space exploration has always seemed a particularly American enterprise -- second into space itself but first to the Moon (probes, then the landing in July of 1969), first to send probes and then rovers to Mars; the leader in aerospace engineering and development.

The past quarter-century, however, has sen the rise of the ESA (European Space Agency), and in particular China, which seems poised to use some of its 'new wealth' in an attempt to create a permanent Moon base. I like the idea of humankind leaving the planet -- believing the old Robert Heinlein quote that "Earth is simply too small a basket for humanity to put all its eggs in" -- but there's a part of me that bridles (unrealistically) when thinking they may not be Americans. Clearly, they did their jobs well in the schools of my youth.

While the American Empire is in decline, we managed to divert enough money -- less than $10 Billion, actually -- to develop and build the Curiosity rover and launch it to spend the next two years testing aspects of Martian soil, atmosphere and rocks in an attempt to answer some fundamental questions around how both Mars, and the Earth, were formed. One question they may answer, or not, is whether in the distant past Mars ever supported any forms of life.

If the answer to that question is an unambiguous Yes, then it will be proof that life can develop independently, anywhere, given the correct conditions. That Drake's equation was correct, and that out in the vastness of space are other life forms.

(This reminds me of two things: One, a childhood memory, and the other a joke. I had a coloring book in the mid-1950's which showed the history of rocket development -- I have a dim recollection of coloring a glum-looking Robert Goddard and one of his rockets, and a happier-looking Werner von Braun.

(One of the last line drawings were two astronauts [You knew they had to be American, of course], having climbed down from a lander that looked like something out of Rocketship XM [a 1950 sci-fi film about a journey to Mars].

Rocketship-XM Takes Off For Mars, With A Soundtrack
By Ferde Grofe, No Less (Photo: MST3K Fansite)

(The astronauts had landed on another planet; in the background were tall, alien buildings; one of the astronauts was shaking hands with a bald alien in a robe, whose face appeared a bit like Max von Sydow as Ming The Merciless [Yeah; Ming of Mongo; I know] in Flash Gordon. It was a friendly image, and nothing like the hostile experiences of crews in films like Ridley Scott's Alien or Prometheus.

(The joke [Which Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman put into the mouth of a character in Stardust Memories] is, If there's life on other planets, I can prove it has a Marxist economy.)

Yesterday, at about 10:20 PM, PDST, the Curiosity probe shot into the Martian atmosphere at 13,000 miles an hour, slowed through atmospheric entry and eventually deployed a carrier with thrusters that allowed it to 'float' over the Martian surface long enough to lower the Curiosity rover at its designated landing site -- just south of the Martian equator, at the southeast edge of Gale Crater.

Touchdown was confirmed at 10:32 PM and roughly two minutes later, Curiosity began transmitting grainy black-and-white test images back to NASA mission control.
The rover, called Curiosity, ushers in a new era of exploration that could turn up evidence that the Red Planet once had the necessary ingredients for life — or might even still harbor life today. NASA and administration officials were also quick to point to the success to counter criticism that the space agency had turned into a creaky bureaucracy incapable of matching its past glory.

“If anybody has been harboring doubts about the status of U.S. leadership in space,” John P. Holdren, the president’s science adviser, said at a news conference following the landing, “well, there’s a one-ton, automobile-size piece of American ingenuity, and it’s sitting on the surface of Mars right now.”
At present, the idea of a manned mission to Mars is being discussed for the mid 2030's (god willing and the creek, or ocean levels, don't rise). If I live that long, I will be a very old man when it happens -- but some of me is still the boy who watched rockets thunder up into the sky, and wanted to see us take the next step in a larger evolution. The boy still wants them to be American; the man wants them to be human beings.


Saturday, June 30, 2012

Fish And Mouse

Echoes Of The Air Pirates

(Cartoon: Mr Fish, June 18, 2012)

"Mr Fish" is possibly the most acerbic and sharp-eyed, brook-no-bullshit editorial cartoonist / artist to appear in the past thirty years. Recently, Da Fish published a panel showing Dumbo, beloved character of the film by the same name, bemoaning his being confused with the symbol of the Republican Party -- which is now a racist, troglodyte political church.

They are the 'party' of hostility to women, minorities, and the poor. The 'ideas' this collective mutant freakshow represents are repression, exploitation, and simple, rapacious greed. They are political surrogates of the rich.

They are, in short, an abomination that should be scraped from the surface of the earth -- and they feel pretty much the same about America's Left and Progressive Dogs like myself.

If I were Dumbo, I'd be unhappy, too. The only group which could be less happy than the Elephant are his owners, the Walt Disney Company, which the character in The Fish cartoon describes as a
multi-national, multi-gazillion-dollar corporation that promotes sexist and racist and ethnocentric stereotypes, unhealthy body image, unrealistic notions of moral and immoral behavior... the myth that everybody is a hero and that success and happiness happen in direct correlation with the effort a person exerts towards realizing his or her dreams...
Now that Herr Fisch has published the cartoon (and it's a good cartoon), he may be waiting for the arrival of The Letter From Counsel For The Mouse. And at that point, I'm sure another thing will happen.

Because, Da Mouse got no sense of humor when it comes to 'creative license' with its loveable characters, and there's a bit of history which precedes Mr Fish's action which he's probably aware of. You may not be -- but, luckily, you and three other people and the Parakeet reading this blog also know a talking Dog with a long memory.

Artist Dan O'Neill, Holding Original 'Air Pirates' Art At Comic-Con 
(Photo © Gruntzooki [Cory Doctorow])

Underground Comics in America began in the mid-1960's, as prominent a fixture in popular art as the concert and music posters being created by Alton Kelly, his occasional collaborator Stanley Mouse, Vic Moscoso, Rick Griffin and Wes Wilson. Since 1954, comic books in the United States had been reviewed and approved by the Comics Code Authority, the industry's version of self-censorship which refused to publish depictions of violence, sexuality, drug use and socially relevant content in comics.

In other words, it was perfectly correct to depict American soldiers killing Our Enemies in generic War Against The Reds Comics (whatever they were actually called). It was fine to depict America's teenagers frolicking cleanly in Archie and Jughead. It was acceptable because Badness never wins, and Goodness, American-style, always triumphs in the Land Of The Free.

Approved Comic Images: Manly Heroism, Dead Reds, Homemakers
(Click On Photo For Larger Image; It's Easy And Fun!)

It was not correct or acceptable to introduce America's Youth to reefers, or to suggest sexual behavior between The Next Generation Of Americans. It was not correct to use profane language, or depict The American Way as ethically ambiguous or, at times, Wrong, or to show crimes committed which did not eventually lead to punishment.

There were Occupy protestors Al-Qaeda Unions Commies in that world long ago, sworn to subvert our American Way Of Life -- and organizations like the Comics Code Authority or the Catholic Legion Of Decency or the Hays Commission or the House Un-American Activities Committee were there to protect us -- from ourselves. For our own good.

Gilbert Shelton, Little Orphan Amphetamine; "Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers" 
Comix, 1969.  Clearly, Not 'DC Comics Code' Material.
(Click On Photo For Larger Image; Easy And Fun!)

So much of our history, since the turn of the last century, has been wrapped up in the dichotomy between official "truth", and Reality. This disparity has always been true, but with the Civil Rights movement, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and the escalation of war in Southeast Asia less than a year later, more people felt that sense of cognitive dissonance in life; the worm at the heart of the rose.

Some people did something about it; some were musicians, writers and artists: So, a "counterculture". In 'Popular' art there was a literal explosion of 'alternative' cartoons and comics between 1967 and into the Seventies -- it was as if Jules Feiffer and the Free Speech Movement and the Village Voice begat the Berkeley Barb and the L.A Express and, ultimately, Zap Comix.

Issues of comics like Zap, Yellow Dog Comix; Arcade; Bijou Funnies; Wimmens Comix; Mister Natural; Motor City Comix, Junkwaffel and others were risky to print or distribute. Their content made them adults-only publications, and like cigarettes, or liquor (or what was referred to in my child-time as Beaver Magazines), sales to minors were prohibited by law; anyone ignoring that fact could face fines, revocation of a business license, or even jail time.

From the perspective of the early 21st century, the contents of "Comix" from the Sixties seems tame. How could anyone get pushed out of shape by most of this stuff? There is demonstrably worse language, skin and 'deviant behavior' on Cable teevee. Well, you kinda had to be there. . And in order for all that to seem tame, someone had to push the limits of what's considered publicly acceptable artistic expression.

Air Pirates Funnies, Issue No. 1, 1971

In 1971, a group of cartoonists who had been active for several years creating their own individual work produced two issues of an underground comic called Air Pirates Funnies. Founded by Dan O'Neill (who had a syndicated newspaper comic strip, "Odds Bodkins"), the group included Shary Flenniken, Bobby London ("Dirty Duck"), Gary Hallgren, and Ted Richards. Together, in San Francisco, they constituted the Air Pirates Collective.

An Original London's Dirty Duck: Part Groucho, Part Herriman
(Click On Photo For Larger Image; It's Easy! Okay, It's Fun Too!)
© Bobby London

Not The Creature Made In Burbank: O'Neill's Mouse
The Air Pirates intended to push the boundaries of what was considered "fair use" in creating parody in art, and freely used Disney's flagship characters, Mickey and Minnie Mouse; according to Wikipedia, "O'Neill insisted it would dilute the parody to change the names of the characters, so his adventurous mouse ... was called "Mickey". Ted Richards took on the Big Bad Wolf and the Three Little Pigs, opening up a second wave of parody attacking Disney's grab of contemporary American and European folklore."

(Publishing a counterculture parody using Disney's characters didn't originate with The Air Pirates; In 1967, Lee Krassner's conspiracy-theorist magazine, The Realist, published a cartoon, "The Disneyland Memorial Orgy". The Disney organization was not amused.)

The Air Pirates Collective published a number of works besides the Air Pirates Funnies -- O'Neill released a Comics and Stories issue, a collection of Bobby London' "Dirty Duck" (which began appearing in National Lampoon magazine), among other titles. A Trots and Bonnie issue by Shary Flenniken was announced, but never appeared; Flenniken's work joined London's as a contributor to the Lampoon's comics pages.

Shary Flenniken's Trots And Bonnie, © Shary Flenniken
(Click On Photo For... You Know The Drill.)

By drawing their flagship character as a dope-smoking, profanity-using mouse who literally begs for sex and gets involved in complicated situations, Dan O'Neill knew he was shaking a rag at the Disney Company bull. In fact, he appeared to be spoiling for a First Amendment fight: Again according to Wikipedia, O'Neill arranged for copies of "Air Pirates Funnies" (which had gone through two issues, and a third being readied) to be smuggled into a meeting of the Disney Co. board of directors in mid-1971.

By October of that year, "Disney filed a lawsuit alleging, among other things, copyright infringement, trademark infringement and unfair competition" against O'Neill, London and other members of the Air Pirates collective. Counsel for The Pirates claimed that the Funnies were parody, and legally permitted under the doctrine of fair use.
Accurately telling the story of Disney's lawsuit against the Air Pirates is difficult, due to the conflicting memories of the litigants; however, it is fair to say that all through the lawsuit, O'Neill was defiant.

The initial decision by Judge Wollenberg in the California District Court, delivered on July 7, 1972, went against the Air Pirates... During the legal proceedings and in violation of [a] temporary restraining order, the Air Pirates published some of the material intended for the third issue... [which led to 10,000 copies of a comic, "The Tortoise and the Hare" to be] confiscated... In 1975, Disney won a $200,000 preliminary judgement and another restraining order, which O'Neill defied by continuing to draw Disney parodies.
In 1978, the Federal Ninth Circuit Court Of Appeals in San Francisco ruled 3 - 0 against the Air Pirates for copyright infringement, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a further, last appeal.

During all this, O'Neill continued drawing The Mouse in violation of the original 1971 restraining order, publishing a new Mickey Mouse story in publisher Stewart Brand's magazine, CoEvolution Quarterly in 1979. Disney demanded O'Neill be held in contempt of court and jailed, along with Brand.
O'Neill delivered [the new Mouse story] in person to the Disney studios, where he posed drawing Mickey Mouse at an animation table and allegedly smoked a joint in the late Walt Disney's office.

In 1980, weighing the unrecoverable $190,000 in damages and $2,000,000 in legal fees against O'Neill's continuing disregard for the court's decisions, the Walt Disney Company settled the case, dropping the contempt charges and promising not to enforce the judgment as long as the Pirates no longer infringed Disney's copyrights.
ONeill abided by this agreement and no further Mickey Mouse stories appeared in print.

The opinion over O'Neill's colorful defiance is split: On one side, advocates of free speech, pushing the envelope of artistic expression and sticking it to the Man because "No one can tell me I can't draw a mouse!". On the other are those who believe the lawsuit handed a victory to Disney that set back future attempts to define and expand the limits of parody and fair use.

Peter Griffin Shows His Inner Mickey -- You Don't
See Disney Suing Fox Over This, Do You?

However, and this is just one Dog's opinion, other artists have expanded on the Air Pirates' parody of Mickey as an opportunity to keep pushing the limits of what constitutes infringement and fair use -- for example, in an episode of "Family Guy" that aired on a local teevee channel this evening ("A Hero Next Door"), Peter walks past his new paraplegic police officer neighbor, looking like a recognizable cartoon character.

Chris Ware; Original Art For Quimby The Mouse
(Click On Photo For Larger Image. We Beg You.)

But, I'm really reminded of Chris Ware's character, Quimby The Mouse. The idea of using a mouse in a cartoon isn't copyrighted... but in looking at Ware's drawing, it's hard not to see the iconic shadow of our collective childhood at work -- and the history of the Air Pirates' work.

The Air Pirates are still with us. O'Neill is still drawing. So is Shary Flenniken, and Bobby London, Ted Richards and Gary Hallgren. O'Neill is still kicking ass and taking names, in the artistic sense.

I met O'Neill briefly in the early 90's when he was involved in attempting to open a club for politically-motivated standup comedy in San Francisco's North Beach (another local artist set up the meeting to discuss my doing posters promoting the effort). O'Neill and I played a few games of pool; I was impressed by his gentle sense of humor, bracketed by a sharp spirit that brooked no bullshit.

We didn't discuss the Air Pirates or the suit with Disney at that or any other subsequent meetings. Even though O'Neill is one of America's principal comic illustrators of the counterculture era, I never pumped him for reminisinces or details about hanging out and working with the likes of Crumb, London, Flenniken, Green, Shelton, et al. If you ran into Manet, you wouldn't monopolize having a conversation with him by focusing on the controversy around Déjeuner Sur L'herbe.

Mr Fish, in my opinion, is another artist who brooks no bullshit in a similar way. He tells the truth, he pushes the limits of "what is considered acceptable content" in parody or humor. Recently, in Truthdig, he published an article, "Obscenity", recounting a moment in his childhood when certain things about the freedom of expression became clear [paragraphing added for emphasis]:
The idea to save the world by writing FUCK YOUR ASS on 100 pieces of paper, folding them into airplanes and floating them out my bedroom window like dandelion spores came to me over Memorial Day weekend about 15 minutes after I started horsing around with my older brother Jeff in the back seat of my mother’s station wagon...

Jeff was trying to wrestle me into a headlock so that he could spit an ice cube down the back of my shirt... when I accidentally kicked him so hard in the nuts that I swear he blacked out for a full 30 seconds.

Ten minutes later I ... explained to my stepfather how I, without provocation, had kicked him in the balls.

“Testicles,” corrected my stepfather, narrowing his eyes like a marine biologist who had just pointed out someone’s misclassification of a dolphin as a porpoise...

“They’re testicles, not balls.”

“Well, aren’t they the same thing?”

“Yeah,” said my stepfather, “of course they are, but just call them testicles. Saying balls upsets your mother.”

...To suddenly realize at age 7 that balls and testicles referred to the same thing was a real eye-opener for me. It meant that the obscenity of the word balls was not intrinsic to the thing that it referred to, but rather to the word itself -- to the physicality of the word, to how it looked and sounded.

How else to explain the acceptability of the word testicles, which referred to the same thing that the word balls did and was not obscene? ...

The debate about the obscenity of words seemed no different to me from the civil rights era debates about what freedom and justice and equality should look like... It was time to demand equal rights for all speech because all speech was connected to all ideas, which were connected to all deeds, which were connected to all acts, which were connected to all hopes and dreams, both realized and not.
I have a feeling that O'Neill would agree with that. And, when he sees the cartoon of Dumbo sitting at the bar (something tells me he has), I believe he'll smile: One reason we can laugh at that Disney-character parody is due, in part, to The Air Pirates having already explored that territory, first.