Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Spitzer Agonisties

One hates to degrade the word tragedy, but if the rise and fall of Eliot Spitzer doesn’t qualify as a modern one, what does? The hounding press helicopters are flying over the Fifth Avenue apartment house in which the Spitzers live, their children are being photographed and humiliated by the swarms of paparazzi as they leave for to school, and his smart and attractive wife is grieving upstairs in her room as her husband tries to cut a deal with the prosecutors, his career and possibly his marriage, surely his life in ruins. By the time I write this Spitzer will have probably resigned his governorship, indeed, he may well be indicted and heading towards imprisonment shortly. And damn if I don’t feel sorry for him, arrogant putz that he was, and probably still is.

No man should be brought down by his sexual life, unless he commits rape, incest or some other form of non-consensual sexual violence. The antiquated sex laws that still govern this country need to be overhauled, and quickly, or we will lose a generation of highly charged sexual men and women who want to commit their lives to public service and still get happily laid in the dirtiest possible way from time to time. There can be no FDR’s, no JFK’s, no LBJ’s, and no WJC’s in America’s future if sexual purity becomes the new standard for electability. I’ll grant you that all except Clinton lived in an age when the press kept a closed eye, or at least a wink towards the sexual lives of American leaders, but if these leaders couldn’t keep it in their pants, at least they kept it among obliging and discreet friends. God help America if the faithful W and Library Laura are what we will get as a result of our demand for sexual purity, men and women who can order up and make war, committing violence against multitudes but manage to remain scandal free in their marriages. America was quite prepared to forgive W his old coke spoon, as long as he spouted his bible and remained faithful to his wife.

Spitzer’s penchant for fancy pros and reckless money laundering was his undoing. We will never know if he went that route because he thought it was safer and more discreet than an affair, dumb-dumb- dumb, or if he just got turned on more by paying for it, giving him a greater sense of control and dominance, as he ordered his sex from the expensive a la carte menu of the five star hotel. Ah, if he had only found an obliging young intern – something WJC could survive, the story would be different. An affair, or multiple affairs, did nothing to harm Rudy G during his Mayoral days, except perhaps amongst his Republican base. But then he had his 9/11 moment that made people forget his disgusting marital behavior, and his total personal selfishness. An ambitious mistress whom a married politico eventually marries appears to be higher in the moral hierarchy than a hooker, or a pay for play escort. No, I don’t believe that prostitution is a victimless crime, but I do think it should be regulated, not criminalized, in order to protect the real victims, the young women who ply that dangerous trade.

I will not be the first to note that it is the cover-up and the hypocrisy, both falling under the category of all out arrogance that brought Spitzer low. Also, there is a suspicion on my part of extra zealous government action, the very kind of action that Spitzer himself took in his Attorney General days, an action that has hounded him and brought him down. Yes, it is the spite in the Spitzer name that helped destroy him. America hates a hypocrite, unless that hypocrite finds Jesus and spouts homilies. One must also be suspicious of a federal judiciary run by the Bush administration. Spitzer was one of the shining lights of the Democratic Party, and we have a Republican government which will stop at nothing to destroy the opposition. Rove may be gone but Rovian behavior remains the gold standard in this administration. But even suspecting an ambitious Republican AJ and others as being extra zealous in bringing Spitzer low, it is Spitzer himself who has undoubtedly done so. I feel sorrow for his wife, his kids, and his elderly parents, and hope that they all somehow get through this alive and begin to repair the terrible damage done so that they can go on to new lives. And I would feel better if a moralizing MSM would cut the crap, and start blowing some kisses to Spitzer for giving them such a juicy scandal to exploit and profit from.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Gus and Us: Part 5 - In the end is the beginning

GUS AND US: Part V: In the end is the beginning

I have a restless mind, one that often rushes ahead anticipating catastrophe in the midst of great happiness, so the presence of my dog Gus was a blessing. Such an animal demonstrates that life is best lived in the here and now, something he teaches by example. Dogs like small children are mercifully denied a sense of the future; they live in the moment. Yes; they can know fear, joy, sorrow, but not doubt or worry. Worry is what we humans do so well, and causes us such grief. That’s why the visits of dogs to nursing homes and hospitals helps to relieve the fears of the old and the ailing, fears that come when every passing day threatens some new infirmity or another loss. It is not just the endearing appearance of a dog that does it. Cute alone won’t cut it. What matters is that the animal is so present in the world it calms just by being there to be petted, talked to; and responding with unalloyed delight. Actors often speak of staying in the moment, but few of us can do it in our offstage lives, especially actors who always worry about their next job, or worse, how they look. They say that Yoga and religion can help, but I could never bend my legs into pretzels or my mind into miracles. I had my dog Gus to help me get through the good and the bad times.

Thirty years ago I had to admit to myself that my life and my career were going well. I had, and thankfully still have, a splendid wife, Joan, and two fine sons, Nick and Chris. My bread and butter work writing episodes for such half hour episodic TV shows as The Man from Uncle and Twelve O’clock High was behind me, and I was now writing dramatic adaptations of literary classics, many of which were filmed in England. Some of these shows were charmers; my version of Beauty and the Beast with George C. Scott was nominated for an Emmy. I had written the pilot and first three episodes of The Adams Chronicles, a notable PBS series about the world of John Adams which swept the Emmy Awards and won a Peabody. Others projects were clinkers, like a musical version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Kirk Douglas, the collision of a good actor who couldn’t sing with a score that attempted to turn Foul Gentleman into Fair Lady. I had a real career, one that required an agent, an accountant, a prescription for Atavan, and a very patient family. Better still I was now considered a writer who could take on contemporary issues and put a human face on them.

Among my writing commissions for the year was a mini-series for network TV about the televangelists who were raking in fortunes through their appeals to credulous believers. It was a new national phenomenon that had sin, sex, quackery, corruption and salvation: an irresistible mix, a sure ratings winner. I relished the idea of writing this series. My provisional title for it was “Love Offerings,” a play on what the televangelists called the money they extracted from their listeners, and a reflection on some of their randy lives. This was before the Jim Baker and Jessica Hahn scandal, and well before Jimmy Swaggert and others were exposed for their crimes and misdemeanors. It was the heyday of Pat Robertson’s 700 Club and the ministry of Jerry Falwell, politically powerful men who helped turn down the lights for the dark ages of the George W. Bush presidency.

I spent weeks doing research for this project, driving with Gus seated beside me on the bench seat of my old Ford wagon, the one with the decal of wood on the doors that was half scraped away, interviewing theologians up and down the East coast, trying to get a fix on the exact nature of the religion promulgated by these televangelists with their prayer clubs, their vapid Pat Boone and Anita Bryant cheerleaders, and their Disney inspired Bible Lands.

Gus’s head would be resting on my lap as I drove map in hand to my appointments with academic theologians. I often got lost, stopped to check the map in a gas station, cursed New Jersey or Pennsylvania for being so damned big and full of baffling highways that intersected without warning, all designed to lure me into the land of the head-scratching lost. Then I would start up again with a lurch of the old wagon, one that perfected fish tailing as it wiggled its way over the highway, one that was to make me a convert to prayer. Every time I turned the key in the ignition and pumped my foot on the gas I was obliged to utter, “Good God, please!” in order to get it started and to keep it going.

One afternoon I had an appointment with the Dean of the Theology Department of an Ivy League University. I had taken special care to look respectable, indeed I was playing the young professor in a proper tweed jacket, button down shirt, rep tie, and grey woolen trousers. Just as I parked my old station wagon and was about to leave the car to enter the office of the Dean, Gus opened his mouth, and vomited the contents of his stomach into my lap, neatly, and completely, covering the lap, my shirt, and the tip of my necktie as well. That volcanic upheaval emerged as a large, well shaped meat pie, and Gus looked up at me with sad surprise at what had come forth. Clearly all those herky-jerky stops and starts of mine in that old wagon had made him carsick.

I kept an old dishtowel and a bottle of water for Gus in the rear of the wagon for emergencies. But the more I tried to clean up the mess on my lap, the worse it looked. I couldn’t conceal the crime scene on my lap. Gus looked more surprised by what he had given forth than guilty, and I could hardly reprimand him for it. I walked Gus for a little while to help him regain his land legs, but what could I do about mine? There was no way to enter the great man’s office with a large wet stain on the front of my trousers, one that now ran down to my knees, one that made me look incontinent, or worse, wearing clothes that smelled of regurgitated pet food. I got back into the wagon with a revitalized Gus and drove to the center of that university town, located an Army Navy store, bought a new shirt, a crisp, new pair of khaki trousers, and removed the offending tie. In less than ten minutes and twenty dollars I entered the Dean’s office, now Mr. Respectable, though a bit more the casual undergraduate that young professor with Gus in tow. Only later was I to realize that I had a price tag hanging from the back of the shirt collar.

The Dean himself was wearing a denim work-shirt and khakis, so Gus had a better instinct about how to dress for this meeting than I did, and took that drastic measure to see that I changed my clothes. And the Dean admired him; and thereby me for having such a fine traveling companion. I had earlier discovered that a beguiling dog is the perfect ice-breaker, and nobody ever objected to his being there during an interview. In fact, I think it was more Gus’s appealing looks than my probing questions that got people to open up to me.

My research now confirmed what I instinctively knew, that the Jim Bakers and the other TV ministries had strip mined the bible to build financial empires that combined old time religion, right wing politics, and snake oil skullduggery. There were several cases of elderly men and women, fearful and critically ill, giving all their life savings to the televangelists for a promise of healing, only to die abandoned in sickness and poverty. I came to despise these hucksters who were building fortunes for themselves on the backs of the simple, the poor and the suffering. Love Offerings became a hard headed look at the present day descendants of Billy Sunday, Amie Semple McPherson, and the fictional Elmer Gantry. Despite my disgust for these theocratic crooks, my script was not unsympathetic to those evangelicals who took their mission from the bible seriously in serving the sick and the poor.

I was proud of what I had created. I tried to make the scripts so compelling and so fair minded that no network could afford to shelve this project. Tried, and failed.

The trouble came when some televangelists heard of my mini-series shortly before it was to be filmed by the network. Perhaps they had been alerted to it by someone I had interviewed for my research. I’ll never know. A network censor had reviewed the completed scripts and sent me his shocked comments, together with a letter from one particularly powerful televangelist that the network had received. If I recall properly it was Jerry Falwell. It was clearly passed along to me in error. I now knew from that threatening letter that these ministers were threatening a boycott of the network by millions of their followers, and a boycott of the sponsors of this series should it ever see the light of day. It didn’t. Plans to film and air the show were postponed. Very soon it was removed from the broadcast schedule; forgotten by all but me. I had been paid well for my work and any smart writer would have let the matter end there. But smart professional moves are not among the claims I make for myself.

That summer a local Long Island newspaper was interviewing me as a Bridgehampton resident, and I mentioned my experience with my televangelist mini-series to the reporter. Strangely, I had almost no hard feelings towards the televangelists. They were what they were, self-righteous bullies protecting their turf, and their threats were to be expected. All my anger was now directed at the cowardice of the network. I said that the network was chicken-shit and had buckled under to the pressure of theocratic crooks, blackmailers and fools. This was published locally and picked up nationally by Variety.

My literary agent informed me that I would never again work in television, my primary source of income, unless I apologized to the network heads privately; and publicly in the newspapers. “Tell ‘em you misspoke. Tell ‘em that you were misquoted. Tell ‘em that they’re planning to do it next season. Nobody’s gonna remember it next season. All you gotta do is just tell ‘em.”

I refused to do so. I lost that agent and I didn’t work for the networks for several years. I had been too young for the McCarthy era blacklist, but I had managed in my own way to blacklist myself as an indiscreet maverick; a guy who would not play by the rules. The good news was that it offered me the chance to work in the theatre, the work I loved, and to spend more time in Bridgehampton with Joan, our new son, Nick, and Gus.

Joan didn’t question my decision to go public with my televangelist experience, but I knew that I had put our family income in serious jeopardy. It was my vanity, my sense of myself as being a special person exempt from the rules of the world, something that my doting parents had probably instilled in my young mind, something that should have been expunged from it years before by my own hard won life experience. The truth was that my indiscretions were a luxury we could ill afford; caution and tact, not public outrage, were required to make a living in the world of television, a commercial world where the bottom line is always the top line. I had played a fool’s role, the proverbial virgin in the whore-house, foolish because I knew how the networks worked, and that they usually caved in to pressure groups. I was allowing myself moral outrage in a world where there were few morals and no room for outrage. The networks continued to thrive as did the televangelists. Clearly I wasn’t Sherman the Giant Killer, I was Sherman the Career Killer.

All through this trauma Gus continued to behave as if I was still the most fascinating, lovable fellow in the world. Our long walks together were better than any therapist’s advice; better yet I didn’t have to explain myself to him. It was Gus who didn’t give a damn if I was cowardly or courageous, cautious, or just plain dumb; if I talked too much, or too little. Gus loved me simply for being there and being me, whoever I was at the time. All he asked of me is what every dog asks of its owner, food, love, and company. I gave him that, but since I could be moody and changeable, one day feeling great joy in being alive, the next wallowing in some fascinating new despair, I could be a challenge to those who lived with me. Hell, I could be a challenge to myself. Despite my shift in moods, I knew that I could never betray Gus’s love, even at my dopiest and most irresponsible he would love me, and that he would be the mirror that reflected the person I wished to be, not the imperfect, very flawed man I knew myself to be. It is the genius of dogs to offer us a view of ourselves, not as we are, but as we would like to be. Having a dog does the most amazing and contradictory thing – it forces us to grow up and to be a child at the same time, and so it was with Gus and me.

Gus was ten years old when our first son, Nicholas was born, an event that Gus did not regard with unalloyed joy. As Nick grew into a boisterous toddler, Gus showed remarkable forbearance in allowing the child to pull his ears and attempt to ride him like a pony but we called a halt to such activities as soon as we saw them. As Gus grew older, indeed, old, Gus avoided the snow that he had once loved, in the city the salt that melted the snow burned his pads and he refused the indignity of rubber dog booties. In the country the icy cold ground now sent shivers through him. But he was still capable of joyful indoor romps with his now ancient friend, the Rockwell’s cat Tiber. Although the gorgeous Maine Coon was also getting on in years and was annoyed by too much noisy canine company, Gus’s own age forced him to moderate his enthusiasms during their encounters. I knew that time was against us. I just didn’t realize that time was upon us.

I had been totally occupied by my career writing for the theatre, enjoying the success of the notorious late 70’s erotic revue “Oh Calcutta!” where I had a well reviewed sketch, and a Broadway musical; ”The Rothschilds,” for which I was nominated for a Tony; so busy that I wasn’t paying much mind to what was going on around me. My work as a screenwriter of TV and film scripts was flourishing again, a career that often took me to London, Berlin, and Budapest. I was far too busy and self absorbed to notice the changes that were taking place in Gus when I returned. One day Gus seemed listless, he refused his food; later that afternoon I heard him whimpering. He had trouble sitting. He had trouble standing. He had trouble. Gus was reluctant to go outside for his walk, but I was able to rationalize what I saw. “He’s just getting old,” I told Joan. “It’s probably only arthritis.” But when I picked him up in my arms to carry him into the street, he was shockingly light. And when I placed him on the ground he refused to move.

We brought him to the vet immediately. After a few tests the vet told us that Gus was suffering from an incurable cancer. He advised us to put him down that very day, the most merciful way to deal with this disease which was encroaching on all his vital organs. I wouldn’t. I couldn’t. And, Gus forgive me, I didn’t.

I convinced myself that it was a big medical mistake. Doctors misdiagnose illness often enough – why not a vet? “Just look at him and you can see he’ll be okay,” I said to Joan, who bought into my fantasy, the will to believe in a good outcome for one we love being stronger than the facts before us. “The dog isn’t moaning now, he’s simply listless, in a few days, in a few weeks”--- but two weeks passed without any change for the better, and Joan was determined that something be done. He grew weaker, stopped eating, no plate of my mother’s renowned chopped chicken liver could tempt him off his place on the rug, near my slipper. We squirted into the corners of his mouth drops of a concentrated cola recommend by a vet to give him energy after some illness he had years before, a remedy that did nothing for him now. I cleaned up any mess he made on the floor without complaint; indeed, I tried to conceal it from Joan, anxious to hide any new evidence of his rapid decline. Gus had been such a fastidious animal that my father-in-law named him “Gentleman Gus” and the loss of control seemed to shock and shame him. Without quite realizing it our home was turning into a hospice for a dying Gus.

During those two weeks I rarely left his side, I found it difficult to distract myself with work, and I decided that I could somehow pull Gus through this malaise by the strength of my own will, which, being my mother’s son, could be formidable. I would convince him by my proximity that it was his obligation to get well because I needed him and he could not abandon me. It was a conceit born of desperation. Then one day I awoke to find him lying in a pool of blood which had issued from his mouth, blood that stained the dark green blanket on which he slept a cruel black, blood that could not be ignored. I now knew that I had failed him abysmally by letting him live on, that I had violated the trust that existed between us. I called to him, “Hey Gus, come here Pal.” He picked up a bit, wagged his tale, and hobbled over to me for a head rub. I took him up in my arms, wrapped him in one of Nick’s old baby blankets, and carried him to the vet at once. The decision to release him from his pain was now out of my hands. It was the only way.

For a moment the lurking coward in me emerged as I was about to witness the death of Gus. Standing up for my beliefs was always a challenge for me, but one I enjoyed, it filled me with pride, because I found it easy to stand up to the powerful and the wrong-headed. But Gus’s death was altogether different. I felt hollow and helpless in the face of it. And that coward inside me whom I had pushed out of sight my whole life, emerged with a terrible force of its own. I wanted to leave him there with the vet, not to bear witness to the life going out of him. But I knew that I had failed him by letting him live on too long in pain, I could not again fail him by letting him die alone. His last sight of this world could not be the vet’s examining room he always feared, held down by a stranger on a cold metal table. His life of loyalty could not be repaid with such betrayal.

I stayed in the examining room with Gus, stroking his head, as the vet injected him with whatever it is that releases the canine soul from its body. I heard the deepest sigh, and finally, looking up at me, he died in my arms. As long as I live I will never forget that sigh, nor will I be able to tell whose sigh that was, Gus’s or mine.

At the time of his death Gus was seventeen years old, a good dog’s age they say, but to me cruelly short. The awful fact about loving a dog as we did is that one refuses to accept the seven times one human year as the arithmetic of his lifespan. Joan and I had indulged in a folie au dieu, convincing ourselves that he would be with us forever. Some might say that I had anthropomorphized him, that I had imposed a whole lot of human emotions on what was just an ordinary little dog who had trained us to live with him. But there is one perfect answer for that. They didn’t know Gus.

My wife, my young son, and our parents grieved for Gus with me. He was so loved by all who knew him that he started a small vogue for miniature schnauzers among my friends and family, and was the inspiration for at least two needlepoint portraits made by Gus lovers, pillows that sit upon my sofa today, gentle reminders of the Gus that was. I’ve loved many dogs since that time, among them a great little schnauzer named Max, but none of them could inspire the joy I found in Gus, and the loss that I felt when he died. I know that Joan shared my feelings, but we had a young son we adored, life would force us to move on, so at the end I would go forward. But on the day Gus died, I lost not just the best of dogs, but the boy who long ago read those thrilling dog stories while lying ill in his bed, dreaming of a friendship and a love that could withstand all his imperfections and the test of time. In Gus I found that love and that friendship if only for a little while.

In the end is the beginning the mystics say, suggesting a reincarnation, a rebirth in a new form that follows death. I don’t know that I’d like that. What’s the value of coming back as a new creature without our old consciousness, the store of memories that have perplexed us and nourished us throughout our lives? What I do know is that death places a frame around a life, and we can see it whole, from start to finish. The dead are reborn as memory, and that’s enough for me. Mercifully, the mind is a great editor; it can remove much of the pain of the past, and leave us with those memories that help us get through a hard present.

As I look back on Gus’s life with me, I can’t truthfully say if I didn’t read my own great needs and deepest feelings into Gus’s adoring looks and loyal presence. For much of our lives we read and misread the feelings and motives of the humans we love, based on our personal needs, so how can it be different in reading a dog’s emotions? Truth is, it doesn’t matter at all. Who gives a damn about the why of love? What matters is the fact of it, the feel of it; the delicious wonder of it. There is no way to rationalize or explain such love; it is felt in the flesh and in the bone.

All I do know is that for those seventeen short years Gus shared my life I was one hell of a lucky guy*

Abridged from Sherman Yellen’s memoir, Spotless, a work in progress. Copyright 2008. The preceding parts of Gus and Us can be found in Sherman Yellen’s blog file on The Huffington Post.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Let's face it: Bush isn't lying to us, he's nuts!

This has been a week in which Washington and the political world has been turned upside down by the US government’s revelation that Iran is not now making nuclear weapons, and had abandoned that program years ago. This contradicted all that our President has been saying these past weeks, as he kept beating the drum for war with Iran. Now comes the old question, “What did the President know and when did he know it?” It looks like 1970’s show time in America. But is it really? We so want to believe that George W. Bush was lying to us, that he is Richard Nixon Redux; it would make us feel so comfortable, fill our heads with dreams of impeachment and a shining new government as the helicopter takes him back to Crawford, Texas, while Cheney eternally defibrillates in the lobby of Walter Reid Hospital, and the ever startled but resolute Nancy Pelosi is our first woman president.

Unfortunately, Bush’s lying won’t accomplish this. Look at this man in his press conferences. Listen to him carefully. Every word he says rings with conviction. This is no actor delivering Cheney’s lines; this is a truth teller, a fellow who speaks from his own heavy heart, a man who follows his own script, a guy who says what he means and means what he says The fact that he speaks his fantasies and believes all of them is what makes him so dangerous. He is clearly insane and that’s something few wish to face because insanity is harder to deal with than the worst kind of prevarication. Liars get exposed, madmen get re-elected.

I am no psychologist but it is clear to me that Bush lives in a world of alternate reality in which it is necessary to create new enemies daily even though our world provides enough real ones to keep this country alert for years. He must keep putting us in harms way in order to keep saving us. Enemies, for him, as with Giuliani, give him the strength he needs to wake up in the morning, and in Bush’s case, never to think of the irreparable damage he has done to this country and to the lives of millions. Unfortunately, armed with his fantasies this madman can send armies out to die, blow up whole civilizations, and there is little resolve in the Congress to stop him. One reason is that we Americans are so suspicious of psychological mumbo jumbo; we have been so overdosed to psycho-babble by our Dr. Phils and all those other TV explainers who can’t accept the messiness of the human condition that we are reluctant to recognize a lunatic when the real one comes along. The old news is that all families, even the best of them, are dysfunctional, and all of us are plagued by our own desires and disappointments during our lifetimes. That’s okay. It’s called real life. This is what our forefathers knew and managed to live with. Life can’t often be cured, sometimes it must be endured. But how do we endure a madman at the head of our government? What can we do about it? Very little in the way of a solution comes to mind. Nancy Pelosi will not be fitting this President with the straight-jacket he needs, nor will his doctor dare prescribe the anti-psychotic medication that might restore him to reality and the country to peace again. In all probability we will be obliged to wait out this year, hoping that Freddy Kreuger POTUS doesn’t decide to strike again.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Some wayward thoughts of a GOM* on a December morning

1. I know I should see "No Country for Old Men" - the much raved about new film, but the thought of going to see a film that is so relentlessly violent keeps me out of the theatre these winter days. Maybe the title should be "No Picture for Old Men." Not that I need a diet of sweets, although I am a dark chocolate lover long before science told us it was good for us, but "Juno" was my kind of picture - funky, funny, and endearingly honest, although it went on far too long, and the girl in it was too smarty-cute by far. Of course every film out there goes on too long. I don't suggest we return to the pablum of some of the pre-seventies films, but the old studios knew that ninety minutes was golden for films.

2. The older I get the more I need and love my friends and family. They both seem to get better and smarter with time.

3. I used to be so bored and impatient with other people's stories about their grandchildren, now that I have one of my own I am the bore who can't stop boasting of her brilliance, her beauty, and her loving-kindness, all of which she has in the most remarkable degree. When she visits, which is fortunately often, the world lights up for me, everything takes on a different look as I see the ordinary become extraordinary through the eyes of a marvelous child. Live and learn.

*GOM stands for Grumpy Old Man.


There’s no doubt that Governor Huckabee has whipped the competition in the charm department of the GOP, at least to this viewer of the Republican contest. Ron Paul may have the honest old country doctor market cornered, but Huckabee is the charmer on stage, the Republican Ruby Keeler backed up by a chorus of wannabe starlets. He is clearly at ease with himself, he can actually smile and laugh without it appearing that he has rehearsed being winsome before two consultants, a powder-puff and a mirror. Yes, that’s a show of real self-ease, one gets his ease right away although one cannot always be sure what his self is. Is it his old time religion, so strong a brew that it would leak over the Constitution, staining it permanently? Is it his anti-choice position, his lunatic anti-income tax proposals, or remarkable for a Republican candidate, his clear stance against torture that represents the real Huckabee self? Friends, I just ran this through spell-check and poor Huckabee keeps coming up as Chickadee, as in the immortal W.C. Field’s “My Little Chickadee.” This bring up the great question, can a man with an odd name become President? That’s for the people to decide, something that keeps the Obama fans on edge.

Why torture is so hard for the GOP to get its arms around is remarkable to me. Romney doesn’t want to discuss it for fear of giving our secrets away to the enemy, although having to watch Romney weasel about for the next four years as President might qualify as a form or land-boarding for America, being beaten over the head by the heaviest GOP clichés for four more years of foreign policy fumbling and domestic economic despair. If there is an unacceptable level of dullness and caution for a candidate Romney has long ago reached it. McCain who has actually experienced torture is against it, but he favors so many policies that promise more war and less economic justice that he is irrelevant in the moral competition. This brings up the ever fascinating Rudy whom so many Republicans outside of NYC, together with wife Judi, seem to love beyond all human understanding.

Rudy appears to be the Republican Father Christmas who will bring the hard core GOP voters the gift of impregnable national security, flex American muscle and stare down the world, why his very smile – that remarkable dental armor - the very Humvee of teeth that will provide an insurmountable border that will keep out the illegal aliens who threaten to weed their gardens. Trouble is, those of us who have lived through the NYC reign of Ragin’ Rudy know that this smiling Santa wants to take away your civil liberties in exchange for this so-called protection. He will get rid of the squeegee guys who annoy you at stoplights by offering to wash your already clean windows, but he will want to order about museums – telling them what they can and cannot display – and he will be at odds with every minority figure who stands up to him. This Santa Rudy constantly lies about his accomplishments, the gifts he brings to the GOP children are not security and a restoration of America’s reputation, he only offers the promise of an Emperor Giuliani, not just for his sexual morals which show a juicy bit of Ancient Rome, but for his hatred for all opposition to his will, his refusal to compromise with – hell, pay attention to reality. He is a moral disaster that has so far been confined to one city. He could become a national disaster. He claims to have made NYC safe, although it cannot be said too often that his arrogant refusal to heed warnings by placing the communications center for police and fire-fighters inside the World Trade Center after it had been attacked previously, together with his failure to provide the firefighters with good communications equipment was responsible for so many deaths. He was not the savior of 9/11; he was another survivor of a great American tragedy, but one he viewed as a means for personal aggrandizement as he paraded before the television cameras, and made himself rich and famous. He is a very bad man, America. He is not America’s Mayor, he is America’s nightmare. He is the only candidate who robbed a corpse to gain power and wealth.

The trouble with the GOP for unabashed old liberals like me is that those guys force me to get into the good and evil business – their turf - something I have spent a lifetime trying to avoid. The young man I was loved nothing more than shades of grey, saving the inky black tones for fascism, Stalinism, toothaches and bad movies. Now, thanks to the Bush/Cheney years of remorseless lying that has led to myriad deaths and American moral decline I have gotten into the good and bad mode and it’s hard to shake it. It’s my hope that a Democratic victory might bring back some of those shades of gray that our Founding Fathers wrote into the Constitution. Or at least give me the illusion that we can regain the lost ground of the past eight years with some dignity and a great deal of old fashioned humanity.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Remembrance of Strikes Past

These past weeks two seemingly disconnected events occurred in my life. First, I had the mother of all viral colds keeping me in bed for days that stretched into weeks. Between sneezes and coughing, and attempting to read – I would finally reach for the remote to turn on the TV and give in to whatever appeared on the screen be it Judge Judy or a rerun of some CSI show. After a week or watching the tube I was amazed at what passes for television drama these days. Forget your “Sopranos.” There are works of genius in the worst of times, but what fills most screens are burned corpses, CSI blonds with perfect makeup and squeaky voices speaking autopsy dialogue as they wait for the DNA results, in shows as ritualistic and formulaic as Kabuki plays in old Japan. What passes for evening entertainment is bloody junk – a perfect reflection of the Bush era which has given us bloody war in the form of junk government.

Second event, the WGA struck. This strike is about writers getting a fair share of residuals from the new technologies, the DVD’s and the internet. It’s an old story. The networks and the producers who express liberal and progressive views about politics and government, these men and women who contribute to Obama and Hillary, in their working life they are as greedy and repressive as any robber baron in the 19th century when it comes to sharing the pie. They want it all. It is what happens when one gets a great fortune for making a few good choices and many bad choices, and when one comes to believe in the divine right of kings – be they Louis the Fourteenth or Barry the Diller. Getting them to give others a fair share of the financial rewards is going against nature – their nature. The ruthlessness that it took to become President of X network is not something that can be put aside when negotiating with the writers who from the beginning of time have been regarded (in the immortal words of some Louis B. Mayer) as “a shmuck with an Underwood.”

This shmuck with a Smith Corona started writing for television in the late fifties so I have lived through several strikes. But the one that remains clearest in my mind was the strike of 1988 when we struck for comparable reasons to the current strike – a fairer share of the current and future pie. Some of it was fun. Writing is such a solitary business it was good for awhile to walk on a picket line with ones fellows, to hear their dreams and their grievances, to claim that we were all spending our free time writing brilliant spec scripts, and to pretend that a better world for writers would result from our actions. I also recall those five months of unemployment wrecking many a writer’s financial life, marriages broke up under the strain, college tuitions and mortgages went unpaid, and few made up for their losses with future earnings. 1988 was not a time of great rewards, even for the most successful of writers. Still, it was worth it if one took a long view and the small gains made helped writers in the future. That strike brought a 9 percent loss of audience to the networks and introduced cable to the world. It also toughened the WGA. The networks who thought they were cutting talent down to size ended up cutting themselves down to size by losing their old share of the audience. What the public does not realize is that most writers have the financial life span of a fashion runway model – a few good years of flash and glory – followed by diminishing careers that retreat into the shadows. Future rewards for current work is not about greed, it is about survival. Ageism is a basic reality in the entertainment business. After two Emmy Awards and various honors bestowed upon me by the industry I learned that at fifty I was considered old news. I had to go to Europe to find work. No, I wasn’t blacklisted, I was grey-listed. And that continues to this day. I am fortunate to draw my pension from the WGA, and spend my working life writing a memoir, writing songs, working in regional theatres and developing plays, but even if that was not the case, my heart if not my legs would be out there marching with my fellow writers. The shmuck with the Underwood is now the shmuck with the laptop, but the characterization of the writer remains the same in the minds of the executives.

The viewing public is surprised, almost shocked, that the Jon Stuarts and the David Lettermans do not write their wonderful quips and actually need writers. Anyone who has watched Jerry Seinfeld recently stumble through an interview with a minimum of wit and a maximum of ego is reminded of the role of the writer in comedy as well as drama. The writer is the invisible man. I can recall standing in a theatre lobby hearing the audience discuss one of my plays, and praising the actors for being so witty. Not a word about the writer of that dialogue. Some notable critics have made that same error. But we endure that. It is a small price to pay for being allowed to work at a trade we love. The old days in which I first flourished produced Studio One and Playhouse 90 – vehicles for writers to do their best with nary a CSI blond in sight to deliver computer driven dialogue. It was the era of Horton Foote, Reggie Rose and Paddy Chayefsky, who wrote television plays that dealt with social issues that did not need to be dressed in a murder to be accepted by an audience. Although I hate to sentimentalize, after looking at the current crop of TV shows and movies it’s hard not to look back with nostalgia upon character driven scripts with stories about real people and audiences who were more interested in the problems of the living rather than the innards of a corpse or the flames of an exploding car. From my perspective writers should be striking for more control over the content of their shows, as much as for future profits. No, there were never good old days for writers in television but these days it kind of looks that way between my sneezing and my coughing.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Why bad buildings happen to good cities

Some grumblings on Trump Place, the Hearst Tower, and the new MOMA.

By way of full disclosure I must confess that I am a passionate lover of cities and of their great architecture, but with no formal architectural training to give academic weight to my opinions. I’m just a cranky, opinionated guy with a strong point of view. So read further at your own risk. I was born in New York City at the time when the Chrysler Building and the Empire State were just constructed. I have lived in a New York that had the celebrated skyline that we all recall from films and photos; buildings with setback terraces built of natural building materials, steel, limestone, and brick, with discreet windows and stone carved decorations around the canopied entrances and the art deco facades. These were and are amazing buildings, the product of art and commerce at its best. Sure there was plenty of substandard tenement housing that warehoused the poor, but the city felt organic, even the worst of the housing was of brick and mortar and brownstone, rundown perhaps, but never ostentatiously ugly. Where we lived might limit our present lives but it never defined our future. And this city sheltered us.

There was very little new building taking place during my childhood in the Depression so I came to view the city as immutable; that is, until my visit as a boy of six to the 1939 New York World’s Fair. It was there that I first came to see and love modern architecture. Some of that fair was built by Wallace Harrison, one of the great architects who helped design the masterpiece that is Rockefeller Center. That fair was Oz for city kids like me and I expected that New York would someday become an Emerald City of great new modern buildings, tall enough to strut their streamlined stuff but not so tall as to cast annoying dark shadows, with fountains and gardens and statues and benches to sit on so as to swap stories with friends or read away a summer’s day. These would be affordable buildings that would shelter people on a human scale in a humane fashion. Well, kids can dream, can’t they?

As an adult I have been lucky enough to live in pre-war buildings in some of the great cities like New York and London and work in such splendid cities as Budapest and Berlin. I know that I am jealously protective of the cities I love, and not always rational on the subject of the new buildings that sprout up within them, sometimes without warning. I was appalled by the skyscraping of the former East Berlin by uber-companies vying with one another to see who could erect the tallest glass-walled architectural monument to its glory. Yes, these are better than the dingy modern buildings built before the wall came down in Stalinist style, but no more human in their context. During the Communist years the old pre-war Adlon Hotel remained a reproach to the architectural junk that the commissars were tossing up. It seems to me that the great cities need all the protection they can get from contemporary architects, and more from those growth crazed city governments who see a new tax base where you and I see a new architectural monstrosity. Take for example Trump Place that eponymous project that was recently constructed on the west side of Manhattan near Lincoln Center. It may not be the worst of the large apartment developments but it is the latest and worth examining for what it says about city architecture today.

Plans for this Trump project were approved during the Giuliani administration in an effort to develop a part of the city that was lying fallow thanks to the New York Central railway yard that covered it. The lack of buildings on that spot was a welcome visual respite at the edge of the Hudson for a city that was so overcrowded. But where some of us see a wonderful open space that might become a park, a Donald Trump sees a wonderful opportunity for increasing his fortune. All very proper and legal. He obtained the land, filed his plans, and the project went forward. There are sixteen new residential towers on the former West Side rail yard, many of them with apartments that sell for millions, with a small percentage of these set aside for affordable housing whatever that means in today’s world. It seems to me no accident that this group of buildings was put into play during the Giuliani administration. It is a monument to that former Mayor’s autocratic sensibilities. I passed Trump Place recently while driving on the West Side Highway and I was struck by the great irony that this development represents. Trump has associated his name with all that is successful and elegant in this city but one passing look at Trump Place with its blocks of million dollar apartments lined up in a massive row and the first thought I had was that Lenin had been reborn as an architect and he is plying his trade with the Donald as his client. These were factories for the rich to live in.

It is remarkable how much the free market – left unchecked by government oversight and inattentive zoning commissions - can replicate the worst of totalitarian aesthetics giving us an architectural style that might be called Kontempory Kommisar. The good part for me is that I am not obliged to look at Trump Place very often but the same cannot be said for the great 57th Street where Carnegie Hall reigns, and new construction is happening all the time.

While riding west on the 57th Street cross-town bus last week my attention turned to what was once the endearingly stupid art deco Hearst Building, designed in the nineteen twenties by Joseph Urban, the brilliant set designer for William Randolph Hearst’s movies and the architect for the Ziegfeld Theatre. The Hearst is a building that always amused with its dated, exuberant architectural folly. It was a small office building whose grandiose base was created for a tower that never was erected. Urban was the designer of elaborate stage sets for the Ziegfeld Follies and for the extravagant silent films in which Marion Davies, chorus girl/ soubrette/ and good-natured Hearst mistress appeared. The building commissioned by Hearst has eight phallic columns which contains figures at their base representing the arts and sciences. It was a fitting place for a newspaper and magazine empire meant both to inform and titillate. I enjoyed it for what it was – an architectural misadventure but a very lovable one. Hearst never managed to build the tall tower to top the amusing columns so there was something of an empty shell about the place. Sir Norman Foster, the revered British architect just succeeded in filling that shell. It has received nearly universal praise for its unique design and its “green” energy saving details. You can go on the internet and get a podcast tour of the premises by no less than Tom Brokow who will proclaim its serious virtues.

Sir Norman, who has built a fine addition to the British Museum in London, and done exemplary work on the Reichstag in Berlin, can be an admirable architect. In the case of the Reichstag, that building with its evil history could use all the transparency in glass that it could get from Sir Norman whose addition was intelligent and resourceful. But he has gone so far off the mark in New York that one might hope that he can be kept out in the future as an undocumented alien and a menace to my city.

The tower addition to the Hearst building, for those who have missed seeing it, is a series of intersecting blue diamond shapes that unfold like a hand held accordion dropped on its side by a drunken street musician. The total effect of its exterior is so ugly that it is a stick in the eye to the grandeur of that remarkable street that includes Carnegie Hall, the Osborne Apartments, the Art Students League, the Park Vendome and a great many splendid old skyscraper offices and residential buildings. This new building is so disconnected from its base that it looks like it was landed atop the old Hearst building rather than built upon it. It ignores tradition and context as if they were dirty words, why it’s very lack of connection to its base and to its neighbors on the street is what the architectural wise-guys find so exciting. That disconnect with its neighbors can work well as in the Hancock Building in Boston whose modern glass exterior reflects the gorgeous 19th century Richardson church nearby, but more often it creates a visual hodge-podge as in the Hearst Tower. And so its admirers have announced that its greatest fault – its lack of context to its base - is its greatest virtue.

I do appreciate the idea of a completely green building which is exactly what this one claims to be. It brings out the sleeping Al Gore in me. Yes, I want to save the planet from global warming as much as anyone does who cares about life in the future. This new Hearst Tower might be perfectly okay in a suburban industrial park, a commendable effort at warding off those abominable green-house gases, but what does it profit you if you gain the whole world but lose 57th Street? Come on, fellas! What were you thinking? Now I haven’t been inside the building where I understand the lobby is so vast it echoes the set of the German expressionist film “Metropolis” – at least it looks that way from the photographs. Mine is strictly the outsider’s view. This is a building that is so damned virtuous but impossible to love; and it is just plain ugly – at least to any honest passerby. No, I’m wrong. Someone does love it. The New York Times, the newspaper of record that has a sad record of endorsing the worst in city architecture over the past decade in its architectural reviews and editorial pages. It must always be remembered that The Times has deep interests in city real estate, Times Square and all that good stuff, and it tends to treat the works of local developers very carefully. Yes, that newspaper adored it. And they were not alone in their praise. The venerable New Yorker Magazine had high praise for it, a sincere but misguided infatuation by an aging roué of a magazine for the new girl on the block who is something of an exhibitionist. You can bet that none of the critics who praised this building would live in such a structure, huddled as they are in their cozy Victorian brownstones in Greenwich Village or Brooklyn Heights.

Was it not enough for The Times to cheer on the Iraq war? That war, for all its ignominy will no doubt end someday but Sir Norman Foster’s Hearst Tower will be with us for generations to come, which at my age is forever. And as the great P.G Woodhouse would say, “it’s a blot on the landscape.”


What we city folk have been obliged to live with in the way of new buildings is truly remarkable. I won’t mention – oh but yes I will - the new Museum of Modern Art. This has to be the worst building ever created in modern times to exhibit art – and that includes the notorious Huntington Hartford Museum on 59th Street. Although the revered circular Guggenheim was built on stodgy Fifth Avenue years ago by Frank Lloyd Wright, disconnected from the street it graces - it plays off the Central Park it faces and works as a remarkable art viewing experience. It was and is grand in spirit and design. MOMA was not a work of Sir Norman’s atelier but it is built in his spirit. It has Pritzger Prize written all over it, and with its distracting escalators laden with visitors, and acres of glass, one sees more of the crowd than the paintings and sculpture, something that does not distract in the old Metropolitan Museum for all its tourists. Yes, the old MOMA lacked storage space and you couldn’t view every painting in the collection, but it was elegant, human in scale, designed for viewing art, and not created as a revenue machine to bring in out-of-town tourist to its many gift shops, and expensive restaurants, or to advertise the talents of its notable architect.

And what are we to make of all those titanium Kleenex tissues that Frank Gehry has carelessly dropped all over the western world spreading his architectural virus willy-nilly? The first time round in Barcelona it was great fun, but now, after it has started to breed and send its progeny around the world it is a bit unsettling. I recently sat under Gehry’s titanium bandstand shell in Millennium Park in Chicago (a city that has so many great building one can only gape in awe and envy when you visit) and I couldn’t figure out what purpose that mammoth hankie fulfilled for listening to music or sheltering against the winds coming off Lake Michigan. I then determined that its real purpose was to announce to the world that the great Gehry was here, eager to make his mark in the city of Burnham, Sullivan, and Wright, the greats who built the architectural treasure that is Chicago and its environs. And what great city today can do without that trademark architectural parachute? Do I sound cranky? A grouchy old man? Okay, when it comes to art and architecture, I admit to it.

Architecture for me is the most important of the arts. It is the mother art. It shelters us, it gives us a refuge in our daily lives, it gives us our place to work and play, and we are obliged to view it, like it or not, as we move through our cities. When it is great, it renews and restores our spirits. When it is bad it dashes those spirits. Sir Norman’s work exemplifies the new architecture in my city. None of your restrained Lever House/ Bauhaus elegance for him or his brethren. He has a statement to make – and it is “Look at me!” The appalling glass tower that he proposes to place over the old Park Benet building on Madison Avenue has been postponed due to community and zoning objections, but nobody can stop Sir Norman for long. He will come back from his drawing board with something that slips by the zoning board. He is the future, like it or not.

The Bloomberg era in New York may someday be known as the time when New York was assaulted by a rash of Hedge-Fund architecture on its skyline, leaving a mess for the generations to come to clean up with a bulldozer. More important, it was also the time when the middle-class was driven from the city by a soaring real estate market, and the city lost its mix of workers, store keepers, sales people, teachers, and artists, as the city became a place for financiers, movie folk, and e-commerce speculators. I know there have always been such people in my city, but the richest among them often left behind great libraries, concert halls, and museums. I know that the intention of the new Hearst Tower was to bring modern building techniques and green principles to bear upon architecture and create a fine workplace but the end result – as viewed from the street - is an insult to the street it has been built on. Yes, there are other atrocities to be found there. The fine old buildings on Fifty Seventh between Fifth and Madison have been covered with billion dollar corporate graffiti thanks to a city that has done next to nothing to stop the desecrations. Yes, bad buildings happen to good cities for the same reason that bad wars happen: private greed and public indifference, and wrongheaded, arrogant experts praising what the rest of us see with open eyes as ugliness and a huge mistake.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Beware! The GOP Space Aliens from Xandur have arrived

This past week felt like a bad sci-fi movie released by the moguls of Washington. Many of the Republican notables have finally broken out of their pods and emerged as full fledged space aliens with a mission from planet Xandur to destroy the constitution and bring terror down upon the land. And to think that some of us once mistook them for humans.

First, there was Clarence Thomas on Sixty Minutes last Sunday. His appearance in that fascinating interview was everything we might have expected but dreaded. When he at last agreed to break out of his pod for the interview we knew for a certainty that this emotional disaster has spent his life licking his wounds, picking his scabs, and denying the realities of his life and the world he lives in. He is our first Supreme who appears to hate the planet Earth and all its people. It was an amazing performance. Smiling, glowering, condemning, whining; a living insult and a threat to the well-being of all Americans, particularly African-Americans, an insult to the justice system that we will have to live with for years and years to come. One could only wish that he had followed through on his resolve to reject any advancement that might seem to derive from some racial quota. He claims to have buried his Yale degree in his basement for this reason, then why not follow through and resign from the court for the same reason? But consistency is not for the likes of Justice Thomas. Grievance is his meat and drink, but only his own grievances, not those of the people who come before his court. Once I thought he was planted in the court by George Herbert Walker Bush to weigh it down with staunch conservatives, but now it is clear that Thomas comes with a mission from Xandur - not to follow through on the advice of his beloved grandfather to be a proud and self-sufficient man - but to complete his mission to destroy our Justice system and then depart on his flying saucer to his true home on the planet Cry-Baby.

Speaking of babies, we have W - Bush the Baby Slayer. His chortling delight in promising to veto the program that would assure health care insurance for uncovered children was, even for Bush, a bit of overacting. It was silent-film stuff. All it needed to be complete was a screaming woman tied to a railroad track with an oncoming train bearing down upon her. The cheap, quickie sci-fi films that this White House has produced in the past seven years - filled with bloody war and flooded cities - has come to its climax in this veto - it simply cannot come from a human born of man and woman. He is clearly something the scientists on Xandur concocted in a laboratory and sent to earth to do their bidding.

And what of John Mc Cain? He has ripped off the mask of non-conformity to join the religious right in a new crusade against "them." Is that really our McCain or an interplanetary imposter? Look into those dead eyes and you will find the answer. As for Rudy, our newly gun toting, Judi kissing, fear mongering front runner - when is he going to take out his ray gun and vaporize Hillary? Once he has completed that mission from Xandur he is sure to turn the rest of the country to rubble and ashes. And do we really believe that conservative Larry Craig was signaling for sex under that bathroom partition? Not me. He was contacting an agent from Xandur for further instructions - for Xandur like Iran has no homosexuals. And who has ever seen any trace of humanity in the faces of the Blackwater mercenaries? Another set of pods sent down to destroy us.

And to think that the American press has devoted itself to the woes of Brittany Spears and the authenticity of Hillary Clinton's cackle in the past week. The question arises, can Hillary or Obama or Edwards withstand the attack of these giant tomatoes? Where is Captain Kirk or Buck Rodgers now that we really need them?