Posts Tagged ‘H.L.Mencken’

Little Men

Monday, February 27th, 2017

vito, tood, marcia

Vito and Todd and Marcia photo by Clare Bokulich

“For every complex problem, there is a simple solution. And it’s always wrong.” H. L. Mencken

Marcia and I recently watched Little Men, the 2016 movie written by Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias, and directed by Ira Sachs, and for my taste it was the best American movie I’ve seen in a very long time. By Hollywood standards, Little Men would be called a European film made in America. Character-driven, subtle, no villains, no heroes, ultra-real, and entirely free of violence, the film is about essentially good people caught up in the cruel realities of economics in a capitalist society, and how those realities shape the courses of people’s lives and the lives of their children.

Because the story of Little Men focuses on the friendship of two thirteen-year-old boys, adolescence and emerging sexuality are also subjects of the movie, each handled with marvelous subtlety and sensitivity. I was so touched by the friendship depicted in this movie that for days after I was swamped with memories of my friendships in junior high school and high school, and the events that led to the demise of those friendships.

The movie is beautifully wrought, and Sachs uses exquisite imagery to tell parts of the tale, imagery without dialogue, so the viewer’s imagination and personal experience are invited to co-write the back-stories of the characters in the film. The acting is nuanced, the dialogue never predictable and always believable, and the sensibility of the film deeply compassionate.

In thinking about Little Men, I realize that most of the American films made available for viewing these last forty years do not honor the viewers’ imaginations or intelligence. I think this trend in movies began with the rise of television as a dominating fixture of our culture, and by the early 1980s Aim Low became the ironclad rule of commercial cinema. Now, of course, most movies are aimed at children or teenagers or young adults, a population that has no experience of great literature, and no experience of subtlety or nuance or complexity in writing or music or cinema.

When I was sixteen, in 1966, I saw Zorba the Greek, and I vividly recall how challenging and exciting it was to contemplate and try to accept such a complicated and changeable character as Zorba. Was he a hero or a villain? Both! Neither! Oh how I loved the widow portrayed by Irene Pappas, yet she was not saved by Zorba, but senselessly killed. Or was her killing senseless?

In that same year came the dangerous British movie If, and some of my classmates hated the film, and some loved If more than any movie they’d ever seen; and everyone who saw that movie believed the drama made the leap from reality to fantasy at a different point in the movie; and a few people thought the story was real from beginning to end.

Then for another decade, it seemed that every week another movie would come out that challenged us to think about life in a new way, to question the status quo, to feel the richness and positivity of originality and artistry, to give us the opportunity to revel in the unsolvable mysteries and beauties of life.

Eventually, with very few exceptions, only foreign films and a rare American anomaly provided those kinds of thrills of discovery and challenged us to think outside the narrow box of American culture. American movies devolved into the teen and kiddy junk, much of it ultra-violent, we have today. Now, every October and November, a few so-called serious films come out in time for the awards season, but these tend to be shallow and stereotypical and unwatchable for the likes of me.

I believe there is a direct connection between the devolution of our cinema and literature, and the ascendancy of those who now control the reins of power—for a culture that celebrates complexity and subtlety and a multitude of possible meanings and endings will not easily succumb to infantile simplicity.

How refreshing it was to see Little Men, a movie that made no attempt to wrap things up in a neat little happy ending, but said, as did Zorba the Greek, “Here is an artist examining a slice of life full of real people caught in real dilemmas. How exciting! See what you think and feel as you open to this artistry, this vision, this vivid real-seeming dream.”

Circus Maximus

Monday, January 23rd, 2017

hattybirfday

Clowns drawing by Todd

“I remember in the circus learning that the clown was the prince, the high prince. I always thought that the high prince was the lion or the magician, but the clown is the most important.” Roberto Benigni

After over a hundred years as the premiere circus in America, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey will present their final performances in May of 2017. High operating costs and declining ticket sales made continuing the massive operation unprofitable. With the phasing out of elephant acts due to ferocious criticism from animal rights groups, ticket sales dropped dramatically.

Elephants, it seems, were a big draw. As a boy, I was in awe of those huge animals, but I especially liked the acrobats and tigers, and most especially the clowns. The last time I went to the circus, the aforementioned Ringling Brothers etc., I was in my late twenties and the clowns were bad, save for one. Bad clowns are like bad movies. Intolerable. But a good clown, a great clown, is definitely the high prince of the circus.

In the circuses I attended, clowns were mainly used as filler between acts—emotional relief from the tension of worrying about performers falling and breaking their necks or being mauled by lions. As the lion tamer and her big cats departed, the clowns came running into the ring to keep the audience distracted while the trapeze artists climbed to their swings high above.

Sometimes the clown acts were full of slapstick and pratfalls, sometimes they featured adorable dogs doing things to confound their clown masters, and once per performance, the alpha clown would perform a longer scene, not filler, but a star turn.

That last time I went to the circus, the alpha clown was a big fellow wearing an old floor-length coat, his face painted to express overwhelming sorrow. He entered dragging a rickety little wagon in which there stood a massive book with a black cover, nearly as big as the clown. And trailing behind the rickety wagon was an old hound wearing a little clown hat, his face as sad as the clown’s; and this hound was dragging a long rope at the end of which was tied an enormous pencil, four-feet-long and as thick as a man’s leg.

The audience laughed when the clown and dog and book and pencil first appeared, but as the clown and dog made their slow and ponderous way to the center of the ring, the audience fell silent. At last the clown stopped, and with what seemed to be every ounce of his strength, he wrestled the massive book out of the wagon and opened the heavy cover to reveal a blank page. Then he trudged past the pitiful hound to the pencil and dragged that pencil to the book.

Then he began to scan the audience, and after a short infinity, his gaze fell on me in the fifth row. I held my breath as my girlfriend nudged me and whispered, “Why is he looking at you?” Then my brother elbowed me and said, “He’s looking right at you.”

And then the clown hoisted the pencil onto his shoulder, placed the tip of the pencil on the blank page of the book, and made a gigantic check mark. Then he dropped the pencil, closed the cover, lifted the book into his wagon, and slowly dragged the wagon out of the ring, with dog and pencil following.

“We’re all going to die, all of us; what a circus. That alone should make us love each other, but it doesn’t. We are terrorized and flattened by trivialities. We are eaten up by nothing.” Charles Bukowski

Speaking of circuses, OxFam recently reported that eight men, most of them Americans, have more wealth than half the people on earth. Eight men have more wealth than 3.6 billion people. A billion is a thousand million.

“Democracy is the art and science of running the circus from the monkey cage.” H.L. Mencken

And still speaking of circuses, Donald Trump is now President of the United States. There were hundreds of events around the country protesting his inauguration. At many of these anti-Trump demonstrations, people carried signs saying Trump Is Not My President. What did those people mean by that? Were they from countries with presidents other than Donald Trump? I don’t think so. I think they were saying Trump was not their president because they didn’t vote for him and they don’t like him.

“Clowns are the pegs on which the circus is hung.” P.T. Barnum

I think there is something dangerous about denying that Trump is our president, just as I think there is something dangerous about portraying Obama as something he was not. The eight years of Obama’s presidency set the stage for the election of Donald Trump, and the details of that stage setting are what we need to investigate in order to effectively react to the enthronement of Trump.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations, in 2016, Obama approved the dropping of 26,171 bombs in Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, Iraq, and Pakistan. And every Tuesday, according to the New York Times, Obama selected the targets—men, women, and children—to be executed by missiles fired from drones.

Under Obama, more than 14 trillion dollars of public money was transferred to the coffers of Wall Street. Fourteen trillion dollars. A trillion is a thousand billion. A billion is a thousand million.

I think if that 14 trillion had been spent on improving the lives of all Americans, rather than enriching the top few percent, Trump would not be our new president. I think if Obama had pursued peace as aggressively as he pursued war, Trump would not be our president. And I think if Obama had really been the environmental president and vigorously promoted solar and wind and wave energy production rather than funding coal and oil development, Trump would not be our president.

But until further notice, Trump is our president.

Reflections

Monday, December 19th, 2016

dancing in the shadows

Dancing In The Shadows painting by Nolan Winkler

“As democracy is perfected, the office of the President represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be occupied by a downright fool and a complete narcissistic moron.” — H. L. Mencken, Baltimore Evening Sun, July 26, 1921.

Since the election of Donald Trump, I have been haunted by aphorisms. Nothing happens in a vacuum. Everything is connected. There are no accidents. Life is but a dream.

More and more, as Trump’s inauguration approaches, I am reminded of the days following the election of George W. Bush. Okay, so George wasn’t technically elected the first time, but he was elected the second time. Remember? He won twice. His cabinet was a horror show. Yet so many people seem to have forgotten that, along with everything else that happened before last week.

Trump’s election is hardly unprecedented when it comes to electing narcissistic morons. Does the name Ronald Reagan ring a bell? And though he was not a moron, Bill Clinton would give any other narcissistic ruler in history a run for his or her money. Marie Antoinette may have said, “Let them eat cake,” but when Bill Clinton pushed through NAFTA while dismantling Welfare, thus relegating millions to poverty, he essentially said, “Let them eat nothing.”

Oh but Trump is worse. Worse than what? The Obama administration, it is now revealed, subsidized dirty coal and dirty oil all over the world to the tune of several hundred billion dollars, yet Obama-wan calls himself the Environmentalist President. Reminds me of Trump calling himself a feminist.

But more interesting to me than our general forgetfulness and gullibility is the question posed by the Mencken quote at the beginning of this article: do these narcissists and liars and morons we keep electing represent the inner soul of the American people? Are we essentially a nation of dishonest narcissistic morons?

What is a narcissist? Narcissus, so says the myth from whence comes the term narcissist, became enamored of his own reflection to the exclusion of all else. He did not fall in love with his essence because he had none. He could only see and relate to his reflection—that which he appeared to be, not what he actually was

Narcissists are incapable of empathy because empathy requires an inner-self capable of bonding emotionally with others. And why would so many people in America repeatedly choose emotional ciphers to be our leaders, our lawmakers, and the stewards of our futures? Why would we choose people incapable of being kind and generous and thoughtful?

There must be something we, the general we, mistrust about genuine kindness and generosity and thoughtfulness; and there must be something we find attractive and reassuring about narcissists. And I think these tendencies begin very early in our American lives.

Do you remember the first time you realized that being smart and creative was appreciated by your teachers, but not by all of your peers? Do you remember seeing someone being teased for wearing glasses? Or maybe you were teased or bullied for being smart or wearing glasses.

In high school, I hung out with a gang of people who loved poetry and music and art. They were sensitive, thoughtful, empathetic, self-effacing, and appreciative of each other, while the general high school population looked upon them as strange and flawed and weak. As you may have guessed, none of them pursued careers in politics.

We, the general we, also do not like complex solutions to complex problems. Nor do we like complex explanations. We don’t really want to know the details. We are an impatient people. We want instant results, and if not results, then the promise of results. Or maybe we just want promises. Maybe because we were raised on promises, not results, we learned to value promises more than the fulfillment of promises. Trump promised to build a wall to rival the Great Wall of China. Now that is an amazing promise, one he will never keep. But maybe we like being amazed by impossible promises that can only come true using special effects in super hero science fiction fantasy movies.

Maybe we, the general we, no longer distinguish between reality and fantasy, between promises and the aftermaths of promises, between what people say and what people do. Maybe we choose narcissists to rule our country because they are not constrained by truth, and those who are constrained by truth seem weak and might wear glasses and listen to classical music and have complex explanations for why something will take more than a minute or two to fix.

Jimmy Carter, who was not a narcissist or a moron, told the nation we needed to start taking action to address the limits of natural resources. We needed to stop plundering and start regenerating. He talked about complex things, such as the interconnectedness of everything. Huh? This sounded strange and weak, so we replaced him with Ronald Reagan who said we could have anything we wanted without limits, that there was no reason to worry about the environment, that America was the strongest and the best in the world, so go for the gusto. Have it all.

And if you were poor and disadvantaged, that wasn’t Reagan’s fault. Just as nothing will ever be Trump’s fault and Trump will never be wrong, just as Bush and Clinton and Obama were never wrong. Narcissists are never wrong. They look in their mirrors and see knights in shining armor.

Then they stand before us and say, “I am a knight in shining armor. I’ll slay the dragon, build a giant wall, give everyone jobs, lower taxes, rebuild the infrastructure, and make you happy. I promise.”

And despite history and reality, many of us will believe those narcissists, over and over again. Maybe it’s genetic. Maybe the tendency goes back a million years to some crucial moment when a big stupid narcissistic ape appeared to save the species, when our real savior was the little ape wearing glasses and writing a poem.

Stockholm Syndrome

Wednesday, November 19th, 2014

merlin

Merlin pen and ink by Todd

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2014)

“If Tyranny and Oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy.” James Madison

In the days following the latest American election, I found myself musing about why so many people voted for so many cruel, stupid, shortsighted representatives and approved propositions designed to destroy our environment and our healthcare system? Why would millions of people elect the kinds of representatives who have done nothing but wreck our society for the past fifty years? Can we chock this up to mass stupidity? I used to think we could, but this election caused me to seek a slightly more sophisticated explanation, and though I may be wrong, here is what I came up with. America suffers from a severe case of the Oslo Syndrome.

What is the Oslo syndrome? The Oslo syndrome is a corollary of the Stockholm syndrome. Also known as capture-bonding, the Stockholm syndrome is the psychological phenomenon of a hostage or battered wife or terrified military recruit or a victim of fraternity hazing, empathizing and sympathizing with his or her captors in order to enhance his or her chances of survival, even going so far as defending those captors and ultimately identifying with them. The Oslo Syndrome occurs when an entire people is afflicted with the Stockholm syndrome.

How else to explain the majority of voters voluntarily electing representatives who have ruined and promise to continue ruining our society? How else to explain millions of women voting for men who pass laws denying those women access to adequate family planning, birth control, and abortion? How else to explain the majority of voters electing representatives who gladly spend trillions of dollars on war, eagerly cut taxes for the rich, happily fund the annihilation of our environment, and viciously gut our educational system, while gleefully denying a large and fast-growing portion of the American population basic human rights and the necessities of life?

“The worst government is often the most moral. One composed of cynics is often very tolerant and humane. But when fanatics are on top there is no limit to oppression.” H.L. Mencken

Bookmarked on my computer is a photography website called Lenscratch featuring the work of a different photographer every day. A few days ago, while looking at a photo essay on Lenscratch of people in contemporary Japan, I was struck by how many people in the photos were clutching cell phones while eating, walking, shopping, visiting with friends, and working at various tasks. The photo essay was about every day life in Japan, but might have been about people clutching cell phones.

While walking on the beach a few days ago, nearly everyone I saw was clutching a cell phone, including a woman walking her dog, two young men playing Frisbee, three girls walking side by side in the shallows, and a gaggle of parents sitting on beach chairs while their kids played in the sand. I felt I was observing a conquered people submitting to an electronic system of control, many of the conquered choosing to clutch phones rather than wear electronic ankle bracelets sending coordinates of their whereabouts to the authorities.

“A politician divides mankind into two classes: tools and enemies.” Friedrich Nietzsche

I use a large desktop computer for my work as a writer, editor, and seller of things on my web site—books, musical recordings, and note cards. I also use my computer for reading articles, sending and receiving mail, watching sports highlights, movie trailers, and episodes of George Burns & Gracie Allen. Being keenly aware of my compulsive and addictive tendencies, any extensions of my desktop computer are verboten to me, and that includes laptop computers, computer pads, and cell phones. My connection to the Internet and the worldwide web is limited to my use of the not-portable computer on my desk in my office. When I’m in the living room or kitchen or bedroom or outside hauling firewood or gardening, and when I go to the village and beyond, I am not reachable by phone or through the digital ethers. My sanity and functionality and happiness depend on not being connected to the digital-electronic matrix most of the hours of my life.

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” Albert Einstein

When the sun is shining in Mendocino, even in the depths of winter, my favorite place to write is Big River Beach. Nowadays I write with a fine-tipped black ink pen in a composition book of blue-lined paper, nine inches by seven inches. The wildness of Big River Beach, the ambient roar of the waves, the unceasing drama of the swiftly flowing river bashing into the onrushing sea, the dance of the ever-circling gulls and ravens, the fantastic cloudscapes and the absence of anything electrical, are ingredients in an atmospheric recipe that rarely fails to free my imagination.

What I find most tragic about the pandemic of phone clutching is that the phone-clutching person’s imagination cannot be free so long as he or she is tethered to an electronic digital matrix designed to commandeer brain lobes we might otherwise use to think and feel deeply as we interact with the real and glorious world.

Traveling

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014

Shoe Tie

Shoe Tie photo by David Jouris

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2014)

“The only alternative to co-existence is co-destruction.” Jawaharlal Nehru

We were down on Big River Beach a few days ago, the weather Hawaiian, naked babies frolicking in the sand, the air scented with barbecued lamb and chicken, the river sparkling, the breezes gentle. And joining us in paradise were a dozen or so unleashed dogs gadding about making everything much less enjoyable by depositing piles of steaming dog poop in our midst and trampling our picnics while chasing each other and vying for scraps of food.

The law is clear: dogs are not allowed on Big River Beach unless they are leashed. Yet for some reason, most people who bring their dogs to that beach seem to think they are above that particular law. And when I ask those dog owners, for obvious reasons, to please obey the leash law, their reactions imply that they think I am at fault, not they.

Or as one woman with two enormous out-of-control poopers said to me, “Oh don’t be so uptight. Look how happy they are.”

“A competitive world has two possibilities for you. You can lose. Or, if you want to win, you can change.” Lester C. Thurow

I’ve been watching highlights of the NBA (National Basketball Association) playoffs, and as someone who learned to play the game in the 1960’s and played for thirty years thereafter, the game today is, in the words of Groucho Marx, a travesty of a sham of a mockery of a travesty of a sham. Indeed, the professional game today appears to operate under entirely different rules than those I learned. However, having just read the official 2014 NBA rules, I find those rules have barely changed in the last fifty years.

The two most notable violations that constitute normal play these days are fouling and traveling. According to the official rules, except in a few specific situations, players are not supposed to touch each other, let alone punch and shove. To do so is to a commit a foul, and each player is allowed six fouls in the course of a game, after which they must retire to the bench. Yet today’s players pummel each other all game long, with only the most flagrant and dangerous of their unceasing fouls causing referees to blow their whistles.

The rules also clearly state that a player cannot run around with the ball in his possession unless he is dribbling (bouncing) that ball. Running around with the ball when you are not dribbling is called traveling. According to the rules, there are no circumstances in which a player with the ball may take more than one-and-a-half steps after ceasing to dribble, yet most of today’s professional basketball players routinely take two, three, and even four steps after they stop dribbling and before they shoot or pass.

In one highlight from the current playoffs, Indiana Pacer star Paul George received a pass and then hopped from place to place—three distinct hops—before he began to dribble. Then he bounced the ball a few times, cradled the ball in his massive hand, took three gigantic steps and dunked the ball. Did the referee call him for traveling? Nay. Paul received a standing ovation for breaking the rules four times in the span five seconds. And that is professional basketball today, a game in which gigantic young men earning millions of dollars shall not be bothered with silly old rules.

Oh don’t be so uptight, Todd. Look how happy they are.

Now, alas, there is no going back to playing by the rules because most basketball players today have long forgotten the official rules, if they ever knew them, and kids learn to play the game by imitating their idols. Soon, I suppose, the rules will have to be updated to conform to the new reality. Sigh.

“In the main there are two sorts of books; those that no one reads, and those that no one ought to read.” H.L. Mencken

Grammatical rules are passé these days because unnecessary. Yo.

“Three things make up a nation: its land, its people and its laws.” Abraham Lincoln

What would honest Abe think of America’s laws today, those laws created by the few in power to maximize their profits and enhance their control over the many not in power? What would Abe think of our tax laws that favor the wealthy and wreak havoc on the lives of people with little money? What would he think of our entirely legal yet wholly criminal healthcare insurance industry? We know what he’d think of our new banking laws that allow incredibly corrupt financial institutions to steal money from our government at little or no interest and then lend that money at usurious interest rates and invest in pyramid schemes that inevitably end in disaster. Abe would think these were not laws at all, but crimes against humanity.

But I suppose none of that really matters. On the great scale of things, with global temperatures rising to the point of planetary death, what difference does it make if dogs run rampant on Big River Beach and basketball players travel and foul with abandon and most of what gets published these days is unreadable garbage and our government is a criminal oligarchy?

Maybe that woman with the out-of-control poopers was right and I should try to appreciate the trashing of our planet and society and culture by people zooming around in gas guzzling cars for every little thing and flying to Europe, you know, just for fun, and surfing in the radiated ocean while dogs shit on the sand and nip at the feet of readers lost in the latest Young Adult dystopian vampire novels and soft porn pap for disempowered women.

And yet…having experienced Big River Beach sans growling canines, and having developed a taste for excellent prose and superbly played basketball, crappy dog owners and lousy writers and shoddy basketball just, like, totally gross me out.