“People whom fate and their sin-mistakes have placed in a certain position, however false that position may be, form a view of life in general which makes their position seem good and admissible. . . . This surprises us when the persons concerned are thieves bragging about their dexterity, prostitutes vaunting their depravity, or murders boasting of their cruelty. But it surprises us only because the circle, the atmosphere, in which these people live, is limited, and chiefly because we are outside it. Can we not observe the same phenomenon when the rich boast of their wealth-robbery, when commanders of armies pride themselves on their victories-murder, and when those in high places vaunt their power-violence? That we do not see the perversion in the views of life held by these people, is only because the circle formed by them is larger and we ourselves belong to it.” (Resurrection, Leo Tolstoy, trans. Louise Maude)

New Readers:

Please start reading with my first post "A Cup of Coffee". Originally posted on March 19, the archival date changed when I made corrections on May 13, which is the date under which you can find it now.

I'll learn to manage this all more smoothly someday, but at present I have at most only an hour online each day (that thanks to the San Francisco Public Library system, without which I would be lost).

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Joan Rivers

I occasionally get off a witty remark or quick rejoinder, but I stand in awe, slack-jawed really, at great satirists.  I am only now realizing that I grew up in an age of brilliant satire -- which was tossed out to the public free of charge on broadcast television, mostly on daytime talk shows such as those hosted by Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, Dick Cavett, et al.  It was not these men, the "stars", who possessed genius -- no, it was the women who were their guests.

Phyllis Diller.  Joan Rivers.  Totie Fields.  Betty White.
An example of the complexity of their art:  I recently heard a clip of Joan Rivers on one of those talk shows.  It was some time in the early 1970s, when even the word "gay" was taboo on television.  The conversation went like this:

Joan:  "O -- and my Grandson! Stupid! Stupid!  Stupid!  He wants to be a football player when he grows up!  Stupid!

Host: "So?  What do you want him to grow up to be?"

Joan:  "Gay!"

At this the audience exploded in laughter -- shocked, disoriented -- whereas if the same idea had been brought forward in a serious mood they would have been both offended by the mention of homosexuality and dismayed that any woman would want her child or grandchild to be homosexual.  But they are not in a serious mood because they know that Joan's business is to make them laugh, and Joan herself is laughing too.

Even so, a lot of tension was nevertheless churning around the room and the appropriateness of laughter needed to be confirmed.  Joan had just said something dangerous and everyone needed reassurance that she was "just kidding." So the host gave Joan a prompt, in the form of the question you know is on every audience member's mind.

Host: "Why?"  

Joan: "Who else is gonna care that I knew Judy Garland?"

The audience again roared with laughter, this time relieved laughter, because the revolutionary idea now floats harmlessly in a general atmosphere of comedy.  Yet the idea has been "entertained."  Joan has dared to suggest that having a gay man in the family is desirable, and she has not backed down from that suggestion at all.   I can tell you that somewhere out there in TV Land, a shocked and relieved and grateful little boy of ten or twelve, without even knowing why yet, loves this funny lady who makes everyone laugh so hard.

Here is what amazes me:

This is, at the time, very dangerous material.  This is revolutionary at the most threatening level because this is overturning the patriarchy.  Such things cannot be said seriously without censorship and quite likely prosecution of the speaker for obscenity and corrupting public morals (compare Socrates).  But Joan used the ancient -- literally the "classic" -- satirist's trick:  she turns the joke against herself, undercutting her own persona, rendering herself an object of ridicule and therefore harmless, not worth punishing.  Who would listen to her?  But everyone just has, and she has let loose the revolutionary idea. 

Having dared to say that she wants to live in a world -- no, more -- in a family that includes gay men, she gives as her reason a motive that is infantile, narcissistic, hopelessly shallow, and ridiculous.

Everyone talks about Rivers's self-deprecating humor.  This isn't self-deprecation.  This is camouflage for an advance operative softening up the enemy and preparing the way for the troops to follow.

Phyllis Diller did the same thing telling jokes that described the oppression of women in the 1950s and 1960s.  And she was completely conscious of the danger she was in and knew how to protect herself.  Remember those outfits?  I remember one in particular: a dress of feathers, a huge ball of feathers on top of her skinny little legs, her little arms (with that outrageous cigarette holder) flapping around in all that fluff.  You know what else she wore?  White gloves.  Always white gloves.  Who wears gloves like that? Emmet Kelley.  Mickey Mouse.  In short, clowns. Diller turned herself into a clown, a fool, an idiot, to get away with speaking dangerous truths to power.

Those women were as much the founders of the Feminist movement as Friedan, Steinem, et al.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The New San Franciscans

The children are drunk most every evening.  Or at least so it seems on the nights that they congregate on my street, Valencia Street, among the bars and restaurants and music venues.

They are drunk, and I am appalled at their language.


Not having had children, I have missed out both on a fundamental part of the majority experience of life and on a vantage point from which to observe societal changes at the personal level.  Instead of watching subsequent generations develop their habits, their fashions, and their mores day by day and year by year, I find myself confronted by a world full of people whose ways of living are foreign to me -- foreign and confusing.  Their behavior often seems witless and self-defeating.  They also often seem stupid, arrogant, and casually cruel.  Needless to say, I am puzzled by them and endeavor to understand them rather than being merely resentful, even angry, which are my reflexive reactions to their behavior.

I often say that whereas in youth I thought it tragic that everyone has to die, I now find the thought of my own death comforting:  I would rather not see what this world will be like in another fifty or sixty years' time, given the rapid disappearance of the courtesies and the self-restraint which I was taught constitute good manners among the new San Franciscans who surround me.

Parents, as I mentioned, observe their children arriving at new ideas and adopting new norms of behavior daily.  Change occurs incrementally.  The journey from one world to another is taken one step at a time so that the transition, seamless, from world to world can appear to involve no major change at all.  Indeed, life observed continuously appears as continuity, something very like stability.  But having lived among adults who were my cohort for the last four decades, I suddenly find the world around me peopled by adults of a different nature.  I embarked on an ocean crossing with my friends and spent the voyage in their company; now I have disembarked on alien shores.


Among my observations of this youthful crowd, one in particular stands out:  they travel in packs.

Last night on the corner of 16th and Valencia I came across a clot of a dozen or so young men and women all in costume -- some as animals, some as stock characters such as a Victorian gentleman, a ballerina (a young man, by the way, in tutu and holding a magic wand), and as what we used to call an airline stewardess.  They were talking energetically among themselves, laughing and bouncing around one another.  I wound my way through the little crowd to the corner where I waited for the light to change so that I could cross.

When it changed, the kids all poured out into the street, me bobbing along in their midst, until they were stretched out in a line the length of the crosswalk.  They all grasped each other's hands and the whole line of them bent forward in unison and shook their butts at the traffic stopped behind them for the red light.  Then as the light changed, they ran giggling back to the corner where they had started, and I noticed that one of them had been apart from the line, in front of them in the intersection, and that he was holding a camera -- probably a mobile phone but clearly being used to record the event for -- pardon the pun -- posterity.

I often see groups of young people walking down the street together in costume.  The first couple of times I thought that they might have been rehearsing a play somewhere and were making their way home together.  I even wondered whether there might be some holiday or celebratory event of which I was unaware.  But I have seen such groups so often that I now assume that they are an epiphenomenon of "social media", like flash mobs.

Whatever the case, I have to say that I have no memory in my own past of socializing en masse this way.  I remember myself, with or without a partner depending on when and where, going out to dinner or even -- rarely -- the theater with two or three friends but almost never with a crowd of eight or ten and certainly never in costume.  The exception that I do recall is from my childhood, when birthday parties often involved ten or twelve or more children going bowling or to a swimming pool or to a park with some kind of amusement -- a train to ride, say, or a zoo.  So I have to admit that such hijinks as those described above seem childish to me, and the giggling chatter of the participants sounds infantile.


Feeling a bit like Father William, I venture to say that I remember being on the other side of this cultural divide in an era which had newly coined a name for it: the Generation Gap.  [And O dear me, I cannot refrain from mentioning, for the edification of the youngsters in the audience, that this then-new name for the then-newly conceptualized phenomenon quickly underwent an apotheosis (since branding is, after all, the highest sphere of activity -- indeed, the celestial manifestation -- in our consumerist culture) as an empire of chain stores called "The Gap".]

Not wishing to deny at least partial continuity between the young man I was and the old man I am, I must make the following two assertions:  First, that despite the paragraphs above, I am not someone who belittles those who are thirty or forty years younger than I as uncouth, uneducated, unaware, and uncivilized, for while I wish to describe my observations and my reactions forthrightly, I claim no categorical or objective validity for them.  Second, I believe my memory to be true when I say that in my youth I did not believe my elders to be unable to keep up with a rapidly changing world because they clung to old-fashioned ideas (i.e., superstitions) old-fashioned mores (i.e., repressed Victorian neuroses), and their own old-fashioned bodies, whose subjection to decay was clearly visible.

In fact, I believed then as I do now that the essential nature of human life, including the subjective experience of living, has not and will not change, at least not in as short a time as that encompassed by all human history.  I did not and do not believe in History as a Force or a Process.  I do not believe in Progress.  And I always knew that the apparent "rapid change" which people then and now took to be characteristic of the natural world and of humanity itself was in fact characteristic only of some technological and mechanistic activities in which humans indulge and of the toys (trains, planes, automobiles, tele-phones and -visions, rockets and lunar modules -- all baubles and toys) which humans have created for their own amusement.  Human nature remains what it was for Shakespeare, as he well knew that it was for Antony and Cleopatra, Lear, and Titus before him.

I want you to know that I am aware of the ironies, if not paradoxes, I embody when telling you how the new world looks and feels to me.  I want you to know that I do not wonder "What's the matter with kids these days?" or believe that the world is going to hell in a hand basket.  While mulling over these thoughts today in preparation for writing these words tonight, I heard in my mind's ear a youthful Neil Young singing "Old man take a look at my life, I'm a lot like you."


But I digress.


Even while young I questioned the value our culture places on youth.  [See my post ""Questioning Youth" posted on 23 July 2014.]  My skepticism has been constant; it is, I think, of a piece with my melancholy humor.  Wherever I observe a general enthusiasm among the other inmates for any particular idea, belief, invention, or innovation, I expect to find something quite mundane, unimpressive and anything but new.

A quick example:  internet commerce.  This "innovation" is nothing more than the old catalogue-and-(800)-number kind of retailing:  one looks at pictures and reads descriptions and then places an order long-distance.  Lillian Vernon and thousands of other merchants have been operating the same way for decades, except that this time the old girl has been gussied up like a mining camp whore and paraded along the muddy main street to choruses of "All Hail the Divine Steve Jobs."

Is this the much-vaunted change that we are told is proceeding at such a rapid pace?  The only change I see is the reduction in the time it takes the merchant to get funds debited from your account.  And if the time taken for fulfillment of orders and for shipping has been reduced, I dare say that has more to do with Japanese innovations in "on-time" delivery of inventories than with the O-so-glamorous internet.
Frankly, all the hoopla makes me want to shout "The CEO has no clothes!"


I awoke this morning to a conversation on "To the Best of Our Knowledge", broadcast by KALW.  Anne Strainchamps was interviewing Julian Keenan, a neuroscientist who managed in six minutes to confirm a number of my pet "Laws of Life" and to cite the scientific research relevant to establishing the truth of these ideas.  For example, Keenan said that whereas we used to think that people who were clinically depressed were trapped in an unrealistically dark view of reality, we now know that people who, as I like to put it, have a melancholy humor in fact see the world more realistically than do optimists, who make their way through life with self-deception and willful blindness.  [See my post "An Excess of Black Bile" published on 8 May 2013.]

Keenan also said that recent research proves fairly conclusively that we do not have free will.  [See my post "The Second of the Paradoxes" published 13 August 2013.]  We act and then make up reasons for our actions, deceiving ourselves into thinking that our reasons preceded the action and gave rise to it.  The experiment he cited involved using sophisticated monitors of brain activity whereon researchers saw that it was only after the subject moved his arm that the areas of the brain associated with rational thinking and making choices lit up.  That is, the person's arm moved and only after it moved did the person's brain begin to reason about moving her or his arm.  The implication, said Keenan, is that the so-called reptilian brain, our most primitive neurological structures, determine our behavior and that the thinking self which we so proudly insist is the source of our thoughts, feelings, actions, and indeed the source of our individual identity is itself a fiction, a delusion whose purpose is to reconcile ourselves to living in the world.

Furthermore, Keenan went on to mention research showing that our memories are more often false than true, providing another nail in the coffin of the "self" we claim to have (or rather to be).  We wish to believe in our "selfs" as mysteriously non-physical parts of our individual being.  We call them "mind" or "spirit" or "soul" and think of them as invisible parts of us that are absolutely private, i.e., that we can each perceive only our own mind or spirit or soul and not the content of anyone else's mind or spirit or soul.  We go so far as to believe that this invisible self is in fact our essence and manifests the authentic person that each of us is.  This essence, we believe, is the unchanging truth about us that provides the continuity of our experience.  By reflecting on this inner truth we can understand who we are and see that we have always been that person whom we know ourselves to be.  We think that we remember who we were in the past and that we can therefore see that we are still that person.  We can and do thereby engage in the great work that Socrates commanded as the source of true wisdom:  "Know Thyself" the ugly old lecherous toad said to Plato and all the other beautiful young Greeks who sat around him completely naked.

So if all those memories we have in our private minds (or whatever you call it) are lies we tell ourselves in order to create for ourselves an image of ourselves as consistent, i.e. true, throughout the course of our lives, perhaps we should give up the idea we have of ourselves as individuals:  "I" and "me" are preposterous stories.  That "self" of yours (and mine) is nonsense.  O come on, doesn't the fact that this thing is invisible, and not just invisible but imperceptible by any means except the inexplicable perception that you deceive yourself into thinking you have by "reflection" -- which is a hell of a lot like day-dreaming -- doesn't all of that sound like one of the worst pieces of fantasy fiction ever written?


O yes! Yes!  I am the only one who can perceive this thing that I have, and I can only perceive mine.  I have no direct awareness of any others in other people.  I cannot describe what it is or how it operates, but it is attached in some way I cannot understand to my body, and through that mysterious attachment actually controls my body (except for all the basic things a body does like breathe, pump blood, digest food, fight off alien life forms that invade it, etc.)  So while I cannot understand anything about it, I can see it by looking inside myself (!), and when I do, I see that it, unlike everything else in the world including my own body, is unchanging, and that its continuity connects all the things I remember in my past and therefore is what I truly am.  This empty idea is the essence of me.

Admit it:  the whole business is the silliest nonsense you have ever heard -- at least as far as you remember.


I suppose that this herd instinct among the young might not be dangerous, but then I remember a great deal of talk about "group think" when the Bush Administration needed to slither out of its culpability for invading a country not our enemy, a country that threatened us with no harm.  Prior to the adventure, George W. Bush and his co-conspirators sought to persuade the Americans that the war was both necessary and just, the justness of a war being essential to God's forgiveness of the combatants for slaughtering their fellow men -- remember that pesky "Thou Shalt Not Kill" business? -- since at least the Fourteenth Century, at which time the King or Prince in whose interest the war was to be fought presented the argument for its justness before a gathering of priests and scholars who passed judgment on the proposed bloodbath.  After this 21st-century adventure, no Weapons of Mass Destruction being in Iraq, except of course the ones the Americans unleashed on the Iraqi people, Bush, Cheney, et al. excused the failure of anyone working in the White House, the Pentagon, the Congress, or even Cheery Cheney's "undisclosed location", to question the lack of evidence concerning the hypothetical weapons or to move to stop the rush to war.  Apparently a blanket of "group think" had settled like a down comforter (so warm on a snowy night) over the sleeping minds -- and consciences -- of everyone involved.  That thick warm blanket of "group think" muted the sounds both of reason and of morality that might have disturbed the blood-soaked dreams of any individual.  And now that it was over, it was clear to everyone that no individual could be blamed for what had been done by "group think".


I used to think that my inability to get work for five years had resulted from either MRM's postings of libelous material online or from age discrimination.  But now I am beginning to think that the various potential employers who interviewed me decided against me because I have no experience working on a team.  I taught college courses, built a business as a stock broker and then as an investment advisor, and I have a small amount of retail experience selling exercise equipment and working in a gift shop.  I have not worked as part of a team.  In fact, I have since my undergraduate days proudly declared myself, like Dr. Johnson, to be "resolutely un-clubbable."

Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I was taught that great danger lay in "Conformism", that the conformist was dangerously close to the ideal member of a totalitarian society.   In order for civilization to flourish, we were taught, individuals must have the ability and the courage to challenge the status quo, to challenge received opinion, whether economic, moral, scientific, or anything else.  Individuals must think independently and originally or humanity will sink into a dull grey world of ignorance and superstition.  Our heroes were Galileo and Socrates -- the one persecuted by the Church and the other put to death by the Athenians.  Now I find myself undone by this code of self-reliance.

I was born when my mother was 40 years old, after she had already given birth to and raised three other children, and she said that she was exhausted throughout the early childhood.  She used to tell a story about having awakened from a nap, and, coming into the kitchen, finding that I had used a chair from the kitchen table to climb up on the counter and then reached up in the cabinet for a box of cereal, which I was eating.  She laughed and said that she no longer had to worry about me.   If she dropped dead, I would be able to fend for myself.

My parents had lived through the Great Depression and the Second World War, and they instilled in me a belief in the importance of self-reliance, so as not to become a burden to others, and of generosity toward those who for whatever reason could not fully take cate of themselves.  I will be grateful to the end of my days for having been taught these lessons.  

[Please note that this ethic of self-reliance is not the same as the deification of The Individual by the Ayn Rand and Ronald Reagan.  In my writings here I have been critical of that deification, seeing therein the loss of societal bonds, the rejection of responsibility to and for our fellow human beings, and the unapologetic greed that drives our economic system these days.]


At the beginning of this essay I mentioned being appalled at the language I hear being used casually and constantly by people who are younger than I.  I am old enough to remember the emotional thrill, the sense of power and of liberation one felt in defying the old constraints of propriety by using "four letter words".  As I remember it, we used them to express the extremity of our feeling about whatever argument we were in.  We used them to express disgust at people we found hateful, such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, or to express our rage at our country's purposeless violence toward the people of Southeast Asia.  It was that fucking war and our asshole President whom we reserved as targets for those verbal hand grenades.

Now I hear bourgeois, well-heeled, and presumably well-educated women and men talk about that fucking manager with her fucking memos or the shit that happened in the meeting.  Especially when they have been drinking, these Millennials have mouths that we would have attributed to fishmongers or sailors.  I remember one handsome, dark-haired woman sitting in a pizza parlor talking about her fucking friend who fucking did this and fucking did  that or didn't fucking do anything about some fucking thing else.  I remember standing at a bus shelter and hearing kids who had just left school -- I would guess eighth graders, approximately twelve or thirteen years of age -- using every copulative, genital, scatological, and religious term of abuse peppered throughout their conversation.

The young never know when to stop.  They think that more is always more.  I remember my elders saying that four-letter words, being used as often as we used them, would lose their "shock value" and therefore their meaning.  Believing our anger and our need to disrupt to be limitless, we let 'em fly.  It turns out that the grown-ups were right.

And it goes beyond those terms.  The one most taboo word in 21st century America, a word so terrible that even journalists must refer to it only as "the N word", is bandied about freely by these kids.  On the bus to work one day I saw a group of four boys who were somewhere on the cusp of puberty -- one side or the other -- calling each other "nigger" at least once and often two or three times per sentence.  Furthermore, one of the four was white, two were Asian, and one was Latino.  There was no powerful emotion in their conversation: it was all banter and bravado, as one might expect from boys of that age.  And yet to them, they were all "nigger", a term that in their mouths was not without affection and a sense of some brotherhood.

About the same time, I heard an older black man, probably about my age, complaining loudly to a middle-aged black woman, about the use of the "N" word by younger blacks.  I could not hear everything he said clearly.  I was already eating my bagel and sipping my coffee at a table near the back when he entered El Cafetazo, the cafe at which I often stop for breakfast on my way home from work.  "We fought" I heard.  And "civil rights movement"; "you could get lynched for saying"; and finally "I'm a black man, but I never sold no drugs; I'm a black man, but I never sold no drugs; I'm a black man, but I never sold no drugs" the triple repetition burdened with frustration, resentment, and the great loss felt by the old:  the disappearance of respect in a world that comes to regard us as relics, as shadows of a world that is gone, as cobwebs waiting to be swept away.

A couple of weeks after I witnessed those boys talking on the bus, I was listening to a BBC broadcast on which some famous footballer (i.e., soccer player) was discussing his campaign to ban the word from sport. He was white, but he felt so strongly about the disrespect and the hurt carried by that word that he wanted severe punishments to be meted out to any athlete who used it.  I remembered England's sumptuary laws of the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, which attempted to regulate what clothes people could wear (only clothes appropriate to their class and occupation).  Needless to say these laws were impossible to enforce, and their passage served only to mark a societal change that had already been accomplished.

This sportsman was trying to build a dam against the inevitable -- more than that, he was trying to build a dam on a river that had already shifted its bed and whose waters no longer ran along that course at all.  The sportsman in fact was oddly endowing the word with a power no longer held.  Trying to obliterate the word, he was in a way maintaining or preserving, its negative connotations.  The boys on the bus had already moved beyond that meaning and had gutted the emotional power of the word.  The boys on the bus were in fact ushering in a less racially volatile future for all us fucking niggers.


A couple of years ago I was talking with a psychologist who has a Marriage and Family Counseling practice.  He told me that he was working with a couple who were trying to cope with the husband's affair with another woman.  The husband had taken the woman on a romantic vacation in Mexico, telling his wife that he was on a business trip.  And he had posted pictures and comments about the wonderful time they were having on Facebook.  His wife had seen his postings.  She felt devastated, and she had confronted him when he got home.

I could not imagine what kind of man would do such a thing (though I did get a glimpse of "that kind of man" leaving the therapist's office one day:  he was quite attractive and moved with a kind of sexual grace).  Was he an idiot?  Did he subconsciously want to end his marriage?  What the hell possessed him to post those pictures and write those comments?  I truly could not -- cannot -- understand such a person.

But thinking as I have been these last few days about the group instinct I observe among the new San Franciscans, I have begun to wonder whether their lives are not real until they are shared.


Now comes Facebook, a virtual billboard on which over 1,310,000,000 users create advertisements for themselves.  Facebook is a hybrid of the high school yearbook, the old-fashioned slide show (remember the dread that gripped you as a child when your parents' friends showed up with carousel after carousel of slides of their trip to wherever?), and the family Christmas letter.  While there is nothing inherently interesting about Facebook, the particular use to which most members have put it is interesting: people use Facebook to portray themselves as celebrities are portrayed.  The form of discourse that the common person adopts to represent himself or herself on Facebook is the discourse of gossip magazines.

The things about themselves that people post on Facebook are exactly the things that gossip magazines print about celebrities:  what restaurants they frequent; whom they are dating or marrying or divorcing etc.; whether they are pregnant; and so on.  The pictures people post on Facebook are also like the pictures in those magazines:  they are either carefully posed shots that illustrate the good lives and good works that their subjects have, or they are paparazzi photos of pseudo-scandalous moments (a “wardrobe malfunction” at the beach; a shopping trip made en dishabille.)

I have long been appalled at the willingness – no, the eagerness – of such a large number of people to go on television shows such as Jerry Springer or Dr. Phil to reveal inappropriate and shameful facts about themselves and their loved ones.  Consideration of the vast number of such people who must seek places on these shows without success can lead only to dismay.  I have come to think that people experience their own commonplace lives as less real than the lives represented in the pages of gossip magazines and on television and, therefore, they will make any sacrifice, including their reputations and their dignity, and debase themselves utterly, in order to appear on television and so become real at last.  For the millions who cannot get cast on an episode of a television show, Facebook allows them the next best thing.


Gore Vidal, entering the Kennedy Center through a stage door before the ceremony at which he was to receive that institution’s highest award and trailing a five-person television crew from Germany, turned to his companion and said, “The untelevised life is not worth living.”  The moment was quintessential Vidal: brilliant in its wit, humorous in its wordplay, and, underlying these, a profound statement on the difference between the values – including even the existential sense of personhood – held by modern Americans and those held by the Athenians of the Golden Age.