On Charm—Are You Charming?

Reading Time: 1 minute

Referencing a link on “Book of Life” website…

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Digging Around Where I Come From

Reading Time: 6 minutes
Zalman Dinin is, I believe, the man on the right. The other men are not identified.

Zalman Dinin is, I believe, the man on the right. The other men are not identified.


I’m not gardening in the backyard of my old condo in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Been there. Done that. Howard has left the venue.

I don’t know how you spend your time when not temporizing on Facebook. There’s work, of course. And all the things we do to stay alive. Then there’s everything else. I spend a certain amount of my time on an ongoing basis looking into my roots. I mean in the Kinta Kunte sense; my own little channel of Alex Haley, but of a different skin color and a different continent.

My forebears were from Russia. In my father’s case, more specifically what is now called Ukraine—current hotbed of nationalism 21st century style opposed by Russian recidivists, mainly ethnic Russians living in Ukraine, thinking maybe they should never have left. In fact, my father’s people (and my father and his family) lived in that part of Ukraine often, in our day, violently in dispute, a region still very much riven.

I have no idea where my father, who died in 1999, would fall out on the question. I was raised to understand that he thought of himself and all of his relatives as Russians—though Ukraine has existed, that is, inhabited, for over 30 thousand years. But in modern political history, Ukraine has rarely been independent, free of the Russian yoke.

It was part of Russia when my father was born, 110 years ago. Inevitably the Jews who lived in the Pale of Settlement that was constituted in part of parts of Ukraine would think of themselves as Russian.

I grew up on stories from my father about his childhood, about which he had vivid memories, and the ultimate turmoil that transfigured his life and that of his small family: his parents, his brother—my uncle, and his mother’s brother, my Great Uncle Sol. It was Sol (or Zalman) who instigated the move out of Russia to better parts. They settled briefly in Argentina, waiting almost three years to be able to enter the United States under the quota of immigrants allowed from that country. Among the stories my father told was the adventure of escaping by train, past Russian and then Polish guards at the borders—all of it planned and engineered by my Great Uncle, who, my father had also told me was a troublemaker from way back.

I remember my father’s stories, fragmentary as they were, with some continuing immediacy, as he repeated them over and over, and I never tired of hearing them. To punctuate the stories were albums of photos, mainly of his immediate family: those I’ve already mentioned, as well as five (or was it six?) brothers, of whom Zalman was but one. The others were, like their father, my great grandfather in addition to his brother, my great grand uncle, enterpreneurs and business owners. One by one, they were cut down, early in their lives, by Cossacks, by bandits, by the “white army” of the czar, harassed by all of them, and from all sides, with no respite from the mayhem at the hands of the revolutionaries, including the “red army.” It was to escape the conditions, none of them “good for the Jews” that resulted from the upheaval of the Revolution, the overthrow of the czar, and so forth.

Prior to any thought of escape, my Uncle Sol had done his part by aiding the partisan efforts of his more daring and rebellious friends. Sol was protected by the status of his father, a close friend of town officials, including the mayor, from whose offices Sol would steal official blank forms to be forged into documents that allowed free passage from one part of Russia to another, necessary credentials for those bent on fomenting change.

What I am left with, though, is my patchwork of memories of the stories my father told so many times. I regularly would encourage him to write down what he recalled, and especially the exploits of my older relatives. He was only a youth when he left Russia (at the age of thirteen) and my Uncle Alex, his brother, even younger. There would not have been that many stories concerning their behavior and actions, though my father’s memory was comprehensive and incisive enough to form a virtual novella about what life in general was like for a young boy at the turn of the century in Czarist Russia in provincial Russian towns, each with its complement of a Jewish community.

There is something else of a record of that era and my family’s private history, appropriate to the present age of a disconnected if wholly continuous flow of visual imagery, especially with the eruption of personal photographic records, designed to have a half-life almost as brief as particles in a collider, and numbering into staggering orders of magnitude: billions of images every week dissolving into the ether. Ironically, the visual record that I now possess consists not of countless pictures, but more than enough, a surfeit, of photographic prints for the most part. Many of the faces when I uncovered the first cache of photos were immediately recognizable, at least insofar as my father had identified individuals unknown to me (all but my Uncle Sol and my grandfather, Josef Dinin, were dead and gone by the time I was born, and they didn’t last long enough to be recorded in my still undeveloped cortex)—almost all of them existed seemingly mainly to put faces to the cavalcade of names he would rattle off.

After my father’s death, I retrieved boxes of material that turned out to be poorly stored further records. There were some documents, like my Uncle Sol’s papers from Argentina, his passport, the naturalization certificate in the U.S. of my grandfather. But mainly there were more photos, cascades of photos in some instances as pasteboard boxes long neglected disintegrated under my fingers. I removed everything I could gingerly and procured the lot into archival storage containers, designed specifically for photographic materials, or anything on paper really and particularly susceptible to the acids used in most paper and board fabrication.

Now I continue to be faced with figuring out what to do with this trove. Most of the photographs were captured by commercial photographers with studios in the cities and towns of Ukraine, or taken by itinerant traveling photographers, more of the quality of snapshots, but still encased in their presentation covers, of a thin, opaque, and usually black pasteboard. The commercial studio portraits are mounted on thick cardboard, usually with ornate borders and title text, often of a generic nature, suggesting that the photographer bought stock mounting board, with embossed decorations and non-specific renditions of their business, like “Cabinet – Portrait” (French seemed to be a prominent lingua franca indeed, for the commercial and educated classes of Russia, like a bourgeois transfiguration of the habits of the court and of diplomatic circles).

In one trove I found two of literally hundreds of images, two that I thought I recognized readily enough.

If I am correct, and I can’t be sure because the fellow I am fairly certain is the refractory young man known as Zalman, the daredevil and stalwart friend of revolutionaries, is much younger in this portrait (perhaps this is from the office blank stealing phase of his nascent career as a troublemaker) than other positively identified portraits I have. He is the one, the particularly handsome one, sans spectacles, unlike his companions, on the right staring dead on into the camera. These three intense dudes, it seems to me, are clearly close, enough so to be entirely casual in their pose—a departure from the typically stiff and formal portraiture in so many other of the prints I have. I have no idea who the other two are, and I am fairly certain there is no one left alive who I might possibly have a chance of meeting with even the most tenuous of connections with the obscure history of the Dinin family in Ukraine, so as to be able to inform me of, at the very least, their names. I love this photo for all the portents in it, and the stories that demand being told, even out of whole cloth, so alive and direct and frank and commanding are the gazes of these young stalwarts.

Ilya aka Alex Dinin and his mother, Ida. He was my uncle.

Ilya aka Alex Dinin and his mother, Ida. He was my uncle.

The other photo is really quite small, smaller even than the prototypical snapshot size of 2×3 inches that was the popular format for photographs processed and returned by the drugstores where one brought their rolls of film for processing by labs off-site, when my parents were young and in love, in the 1930s, and of the sort, the snaps and other photos, that is, that comprise another whole portfolio of vexation for me, pondering the challenge of identifying who, and what, and where, and why these images were captured in the first place. But this photo, of a stern-faced woman and a somewhat, but not much, milder looking boy, clearly with a deep and abiding relation to the woman by blood is significantly older than that.

At first, having recognized the woman as a much younger incarnation of my grandmother than in more recent photos I had seen, my father’s mother, Ida, who never knew me, before she died of causes unknown to me, when she was barely in her 60s—at first I took the young fellow as my father, and, indeed, when I scanned the photo, I named the file using his and her name. However, on re-examination and a closer look at that characteristic curled lip, somewhere between sullen and a sneer only one-quarter formed, and after comparing the shape of his left ear and the shape of the same appendage in a much later portrait, taken by me, a teen-aged me, in fact, of my Uncle Alex (his name in Russia, at the time of the portrait of him and his mother, would have been Ilya) persuaded me of my mistake. The portrait, given his apparent stage of development and the indeterminacy of his age, except within a range of three or four years, had to have been taken around the time of the family’s escape from Russia in 1918, when he would have been eight or nine years old. The photo, an oval shape, obviously, was cut out somewhat clumsily from a larger photo and pasted to a nondesript piece of board, with no marks or printing on it of any kind—another attestation to the haste and changed circumstances that surrounded its taking and mounting and preservation. But again, there is no one to tell me any more than what my memory serves and my eyes and imagination manage to tell me.

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Trumping the Greatest Man in the World

Reading Time: 10 minutes
James Grover Thurber—American humorist and writer, raconteur, cartoonist, staff member of The "New Yorker," 1894-1961. Credit: Fred Palumbo, World Telegram staff photographer - Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection.

James Grover Thurber—American humorist and writer, raconteur, cartoonist, staff member of The “New Yorker,” 1894-1961.
Credit: Fred Palumbo, World Telegram staff photographer – Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection.

I’ve been increasingly entranced with an idea for the past few weeks. It seems to be the only means of relief from a dilemma emblematic of a world now captive entirely to the phenomenon of celebrity as ethos—whereby no matter how outrageous the performance, then the greater the general admiration of the populace at large. Rather, to amend that proposition slightly, the more outrageous the performance, the greater the likelihood of an enthusiastic admiration.

We’ve had our libidos (and our ids) massaged seeing it in the gyrations, pulsations, and pelvic osculations of pop female singers. Correlative to this phenomenon are, of course, the behaviors of their male counterparts. Except to a perplexed minority, composed mostly of uselessly over-educated, hence judgmental, if otherwise well acculturated intelligent adults, the great mass of humanity comprising the U.S. population asserts itself in ever greater adulation of the likes of Miley Cyrus, Beyoncé, Will.I.Am., Kanye West (and, of course, Mr. West’s consort, who seems to have no visible talent, save for the highly visible product of perpetual cultivation of her womanly proportions—calibrated to some ideal that somehow consummates and amalgamates the chimerical fantasies of worshipful female perfection through several millennia and many cultures; think the Venus of Willendorf in Spandex). No matter that there are not the usual, that is the age-old, signs of attainment according to established standards of human grasping for perfectibility, in matters of intellect, creativity, scientific discovery, exploration.

What has pricked my conscience with that entrancing idea is the seeming spread of the spectacle, like a rogue virus, to other reaches of la patria Americana. Now we are seeing the phenomenon raised to a new level of art, the stakes very much higher than mere popularity. Politics. The stakes, of course: the office of the “most powerful man in the world.” I put that in scare quotes, because if it were true, President Obama would have ensured his place in history with the passage of all sorts of laws for the common good, would have brought the country back from the brink of economic ruin, if not insolvency, would have prevented unemployment from being an unmanageable scourge… But, hmmm, as they say on Facebook coyly, “wait!”

If it were not necessary for scare quotes President Bush (II) would not have plunged us into unwinnable wars for at least 11 years, at a cost of thousands of American lives, likely hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan lives, would have incurred what will probably amount to an unpaid debt of three or four trillion dollars for the cost of those wars. Would have ensured that the efforts of future presidents would face the intractable efforts of a Congress to do nothing that furthered any other agenda than his, of never raising taxes, even while incurring mounting levels of expense and debt.

But (yet again…) wait!

Maybe, in fact, it’s not a punch line. Maybe we are getting the equivalent, in business attire, of rap stars and reality stars and bimbos who sing in the nude while swinging on construction hooks on huge cranes to run for the office of President of the United States… Did I say equivalent?

However, back to that idea that has captivated my imagination.

Some backtracking, more than 90 years, is in order first. Among the factoids stowed away by the truly culturally literate is the year of the founding of “The New Yorker,” arguably the most civilized serial publication ever devised by humans in English—possibly in any language, but I only know two, and one of those not too well; I’m fairly confident of my judgments about the uses of the English language. Famously, among the other things that the man who founded the magazine and edited it through its first 25 or so years of development, Harold W. Ross, did was to insist that the language be used with clarity and directness, yet, with style and verve. He was accused of cultivating, if only unconsciously, an unmistakable house style that sheared all protuberances to a uniform height and filled in all voids to ensure a predictable, readily identifiable uniform surface appearance. Others would differ. But we are not here to deconstruct venerable literary edifices (and “The New Yorker” has gone on to foster the careers of a diversity of writers, each with a readily identifiable way of handling the language).

Ross was an anomaly. A true son of the Old West—he was born and spent his formative years in Aspen, Colorado, and never attended college—he was somehow also a man of cultivated sensibilities, a true urbane sophisticate, who spent most of his life in the urban milieu, yet always longing for his roots on what, at the time, was the last of the frontier. He was first, and foremost, a reporter, a newspaper man, and so he learned at the forge of hammering facts into a readily ingested narrative that provided all necessary information and no more.

Eccentric in many regards, he was, as I already said, among other things, a stickler for clear, direct, uncomplicated, if not altogether simple, writing, but with no compromise for the literary merits of the exertion required in producing the crystalline prose of which the New Yorker magazine became an avatar. A high-school dropout who became a wrangler of the wittiest and most sophisticated writers—at the inauguration of the magazine, most of them plying their craft in a humorous vein. After a rocky start, which saw the upstart publication—famously, as Ross put it in the mission statement and prospectus for The New Yorker, not intended for “the old lady in Dubuque”—almost fail; within two years of its inception the magazine had found its footing and its voice. Never wholly abandoning its intention to look at the more light-hearted facets of life, “The New Yorker” saw its way to an even greater role for humor, the same role to which so many practitioners, starting well before 1925, put it to use, from Shakespeare to Woody Allen, and that is, first, to examine and then expose the foibles of human behavior, and to cast a light into even the darkest corners of the human psyche.

Among the earliest of the greatest of its staff was a man who seemed incapable of an utterance that would not produce a laugh. He had the additional gift of art that flowed effortlessly from his pencil. Many an iconic “New Yorker” image, particularly the affable if lumbering lineaments of the great mastiff-sized dogs that were featured in many of his “drawings,” as the magazine’s denizens insisted idiosyncratically on calling what we mere mortals, savoring the fruits of such exertions, identified as “cartoons,” quickly became part of the “brand:” institutions. I speak of James Thurber, the creator of numerous fictive immortals, possibly the greatest of whom, certainly among the best known, was Walter Mitty, the everyman who stood in for all of us, harboring quixotic dreams of glory we, any of us, would never personally know. And he only knew in the darkened movie theater of his imagination.

We live in an age, three-quarters of a century hence from the birth, full-grown, of the immortal Mitty, where (with not an atom of irony detectable by the most sensitive of New Yorker critics and investigative journalists—who have examined everything it seems, from the microscopic traces of our earliest ancestors, to the methods of wild orchid thieves in Florida everglades) even Mitty-esque strivers, living their own glory-laden fantasies of triumph and salvation, can play them out on a world-stage for all to see and hear, as they mouth the soundtrack that narrates their own triumphs, as fictive as their exploits and attributes, as wistful and evanescent as their promises. I speak of course of the current crop, as well as all past crops, of would-be nominees and holders of high political office.

And the public, or some statistically measurable, if not significant, segment of it, roars its approbation, so hungry are they for a hero and a champion that their own fantasies, fed by Hollywood with a steady diet of comic book masters of the universe, have transmuted into the impossible facts of a Trump, unsubstantiated in reality, unchallenged by those whose stock in trade is challenge in the name of truth. With Biblical probity—to speak a thing is to make it true—there is no questioning of Trumpine veracity. The eternal truth will bear him out, once you stop tramping in the weeds of quibbles and details.

By his own accounts, Donald Trump is, indeed, one of the greatest of men to grace our lives. And he will provide all the information required to substantiate such a claim, while, of course, withholding all those “stupid facts”—as our recent great populist/fabulist President, born of wishes made flesh in the kingdom of imagination and legend, called them—that would only muddy the clear waters of faith.

What gnaws at so many, however, are the glaring views, sometimes only flashes and Instagrammatic glimpses, of those loutish interstices of behavior that simply persist, small, manageable fires, flaring up, then dying in the metaphorical forest of our collective inescapable quotidian, miraculously never building into the all-consuming conflagration that portends disaster for the man with the fiery-orange hair at the center of attention. Walter Mitty with a colossal ego.

By his own measure, Donald Trump, among his many claims and titles would, seemingly, be the greatest man in America, and as a consequence, America being the great country it used to be, which it shall be again under his stewardship, the once and future America: the greatest man in the world.

My man Thurber, surely a student of the vanity of human wishes, and the folly of human aspiration, in fact wrote of such a man, albeit a fiction, albeit tailored to a simpler time in our history—when heroes were outfitted in less flamboyant attire, and never of their own fashioning. Indeed, it was a time when it was expected that heroes eschewed celebrity, and more modestly accepted the praise and the accolades offered by a grateful nation, humbled in their sense of their humanity by the brave exploits of such genuine heroes. Men like Charles Lindbergh and William Perry.

These two paragons are invoked in a short story published in “The New Yorker” in 1931, written by Thurber, and set as a narrative in what was then the future (that is, in 1940) looking back on the history of events as they unfold as if they had occurred and been forgotten. All of this happened in such a way for good reason, as the secret history reveals, because the character of the title character–the story is whimsically, if not facetiously, entitled “The Greatest Man in the World”—had proven to be such a louche individual, in all respects so irredeemable, to have not only feet of clay, but about whom it might be said that his entire body, if not his very spirit were composed entirely of terra cotta.

The hero, one John “Pal” Smurch, accomplishes the unlikely feat of flying solo without stopping around the entire globe. He returns to acclaim, but as the narrator informs us, the truths about him as revealed by the press compel a resolution that is as dire as the prospect of allowing such a revelation of his true nature to reach the adoring public. I have excerpted relevant passages, culminating in the impromptu solution to the seemingly irresolvable dilemma the great and important men, whose job it is, among other tasks, to save the public at large from any awful truth. I was reminded of the dilemma as I pondered the likelihood of how the masters and mistresses of our lives, in both parties, and in all the corridors of power in Washington, in finance and in industry despair of how to solve a problem named the Donald.

The story Thurber tells opens as Smurch, an unlikely hero from the start, takes off in his little plane, outfitted with no more than a gallon of bootleg gin and a six-pound salami, launched from a New Jersey airfield into the heavens in a quest for greatness. Improbably, stories come back from far corners of the world with sightings of his small plane, and the gears of the engines of fame begin to mesh… With some elisions I have made, it continues, after his landing and his forced three week sequestration in total seclusion as powerful figures first grapple behind the scenes with their helplessness dealing with the nightmare Smurch has presented them, by his very existence and the ineluctable and unavoidable revulsion his personality inspires, and finally, in the dénouement, stumble, as it were, upon a happy solution.

…Reporters, who had been rushed out to Iowa when Smurch’s plane was first sighted over the little French coast town of Serly-le-Mer, to dig up the story of the great man’s life, had promptly discovered that the story of his life could not be printed. His mother, a sullen short-order cook in a shack restaurant on the edge of a tourists’ camping ground near Westfield, met all inquiries as to her son with an angry “Ah the hell with him; I hope he drowns.” His father appeared to be in jail somewhere for stealing spotlights and laprobes from tourists’ automobiles; his young brother, a weak-minded lad, had but recently escaped from the Preston, Iowa, Reformatory and was already wanted in several Western states for the theft of money-order blanks from post offices. These alarming discoveries were still piling up at the very time that Pal Smurch, the greatest hero of the twentieth-century, blear-eyed, dead for sleep, half-starved, was piloting his crazy junk-heap high above the region in which the lamentable story of his private life was being unearthed, headed for New York and a greater glory than any man of his time had ever known.

The great and important men in the room, faced by the most serious crisis in recent American history, exchanged worried frowns. Nobody seemed to know how to proceed. “Come awn, come awn,” said Smurch. “Let’s get the hell out of here! When do I start cuttin’ in on de parties, huh? And what’s they goin’ to be in it?” He rubbed a thumb and forefinger together meaningly. “Money!” exclaimed a state senator, shocked, pale. “Yeh, money,” said Pal, flipping his cigarette out of a window. “An’ big money.” He began rolling a fresh cigarette. “Big money,” he repeated, frowning over the rice paper. He tilted back in his chair, and leered at each gentleman, separately, the leer of an animal that knows its power, the leer of a leopard in a bird-and-dog shop. “Aw fa God’s sake, let’s get some place where it’s cooler,” he said. “I been cooped up plenty for three weeks!”

In the tense little knot of men standing behind him, a quick, mad impulse flared up. An unspoken word of appeal, of command, seemed to ring through the room. Yet it was deadly silent. Charles K.L. Brand, secretary to the Mayor of New York City, happened to be standing nearest Smurch; he looked inquiringly at the President of the United States. The President, pale, grim, nodded shortly. Brand, a tall, powerfully built man, once a tackle at Rutgers, stepped forward, seized the greatest man in the world by his left shoulder and the seat of his pants, and pushed him out the window.

“My God, he’s fallen out the window!” cried a quick-witted editor.

“Get me out of here!” cried the President….The editor of the Associated Press took charge, being used to such things. Crisply he ordered certain men to leave, others to stay; quickly he outlined a story while all the papers were to agree on, sent two men to the street to handle that end of the tragedy, commanded a Senator to sob and two Congressmen to go to pieces nervously. In a word, he skillfully set the stage for the gigantic task that was to follow, the task of breaking to a grief-stricken world the sad story of the untimely accidental death of its most illustrious and spectacular figure.

We live in much more complex and nuanced times (OK, not nuanced, but somehow we are to believe we are more sophisticated and informed as a people than we were almost a hundred years ago). No one, least of all I, a credentialed pseudo-intellectual, progressive-leaning, liberal-minded humanist, would suggest that such a quietly violent, if ingenious, solution to the Donald, an act perhaps better suited to clandestine black-ops skullduggers we are not supposed to admit our government has on its payroll, is the only solution. However, I have scoured the pages of the media, both those that are virtual and those composed of wood pulp, and nary a crackerjack strategist, opiner, or editor, nary a pundit, an analyst, or a steely-eyed, nerveless investigative reporter has come up with a better.

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The New Newspeak

Reading Time: 2 minutes

more often than not what you read on this blog is inspired, though I tend to think of it as provoked, by something I’ve heard or seen or read, especially on the Internet. the link below is the provocation in this case

http://www.economist.com/news/europe/21661043-langue-de-moli-re-gets-north-african-infusion-arabesque

We had dinner at our house for guests the other night. One couple were 30-somethings, well along in establishing their careers, with graduate school behind them, but not so far that it’s a dim memory. The other couple were 20-something, one of them just 23, and just recently out of college, with the elder of the two about to start law school. My wife teaches at a local university, and just started the new semester’s classes, with students from freshman year through graduate school. At one point, the conversation turned to the volatile nature of the vernacular, especially as used by those even younger than our guests, both in spoken conversations and texting. Even the youngest of our guests said it’s simply impossible to keep up with the vocabulary that is au courant.

It’s clear to me, being a student of language for onto 40 years, and often cited by others for the expansiveness of my vocabulary (which is, alas, wholly deficient in the current slang of the moment, of the locality, of the region, of my country, never mind of France in any part of it, urban or rural), that the agency of all this, if not the enabler, is the Internet. Not because of some innate linguistic voodoo, or because of some social emollient (though it’s easier to say anything even to strangers, because, famously, on the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog), but because of the rapidity of the spread of anything, be it a meme, or a joke, a cartoon, a photographic image, or a newly coined buzz word.

In the early 90s it was stock brokers who were the medium for the rapid spread of the latest jokes, simply because they were the only workers, cross country, who were interconnected for business reasons, and who universally had computers and email accounts. A joke could make it from New York to LA by lunchtime on the east coast. I suspect the delay is even shorter today for the traffic in what passes for the content of communications, because there are so many more people intereconnected, because connections occur in real time, just like a voice phone call, and the devices are all mobile and wireless.

It’s not prescient in the least to expect that the impact of youth and the ways they use language and the ever shrinking dimensions of the virtual globe on which we all reside is changing how ordinary people convey a message or a greeting. Writers have long anticipated it, and even tried to prefigure how the vernacular might go, getting the flavor of the phenomenon, if not the actual mutations as languages meld. The best example I can think of immediately is Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, a novel that was published in 1962. And of course, there was George Orwell in the 1940s, with his “discovery” of Newspeak, and the specialized languages he invented in his dystopian novels.

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The Presidential Campaign Thus Far, Late Summer 2015

Reading Time: 4 minutes

also posted on Facebook

At this point in the increasingly extruded presidential campaigns (they used to be a year, more or less, and now are two, making lame ducks even lamer), I think less about who I am “for”—I’m never earnestly in favor of anyone, and never have been; I gave money generously to Obama in 2008 to help ensure his run against Clinton for the nomination, and then against McCain/Palin… but no candidate ever aligns perfectly with my views, which is the way the phenomenon should occur, I think, that is, it’s the candidates who should be taking quizzes to see what percentage of my views they agree with. I think about those whose policies I can best embrace.

I don’t think about viablity, not as an index of my likely potential vote, not this early. I don’t think about all the non-salient factors that seem to motivate so many other people, on the full political spectrum, from left to right, all supporters act almost exactly the same way. I can’t say they are genuinely intellectually engaged; almost nobody is sufficiently articulate and certainly not on Facebook, let’s say, to assess when someone is making an intelligent informed decision. On the social media everyone appears to be emotionally driven, and as much by antipathy for the other, as by enthusiasm for my man or woman. It’s clear though that a lot of people are about as animated as my classmates used to get when selecting the prom king and queen (I never attended a prom; never wanted to, and couldn’t have cared less… I was defective in this regard even then). Some people, regarding their candidate of choice even froth a bit at the lips, figuratively speaking. I’ve seen it in right-wingers; I’ve seen it in Bernie supporters; I’ve seen it in the disenchanted who say hold your nose and vote for (Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush usually) because either of them is better than the alternative.

Now, as for Bernie Sanders, in particular, but to a certain extent it’s true of Donald Trump, who, as an aside, are a strange Tweedledum and Tweedledee, but that’s how I see them, yin and yang and therefore reinforcing each other’s gestalt, we’re beginning to see the Messiah syndrome emerge. Increasingly, as the media institutionalize the question of Joe Biden’s candidacy (his jumping in would be entirely opportunistic, even if he is genuinely contemplating it, and his prospects more an index of Clinton’s failing inevitability—Biden is simply not an inevitability kind of candidate; he is what he is, the dependable, steady running mate; even Andy Borowitz still doesn’t take him seriously) and the progressives now getting really hot about Bernie Sanders are acting exactly like suitors with a new flame, having been spurned by their real soul mate, Liz Warren (who has shown herself to have feet with a little bit of clay in them, but not so much it can’t be overlooked except by Republican trolls).

Now suddenly, every candidate has the potentiality for being a snake in the grass, a spoiler, duplicitous, ambitious, greedy, and underhanded. Judases. As if Sanders is not a politician, but something purer than the common clay that contaminates all of us ordinary people. As if Sanders is not also, despite the allure of many of his policies, and his quiet assertions of mature, rational adulthood, contrasted with the insane adolescent spritz of the crypto standup comedians that constitute the rest of the candidate field, capable of solecisms and misfires. As if our Bernie is not a member of that most exclusive of clubs, the Senate, who must go along at times, to get along. The Senate does not do absolutely nothing, and when it does what little it does, it manages to do so these days because somebody has to cross the aisle and work in league with the enemy.

Finally, of course, to take the focus off Bernie Sanders, who is the cynosure of all of that other white minority, the urban liberal, plus all the other people who usually quietly go about their lives because there is so rarely anyone who seems genuinely capable of honestly expressing their sense of being passively oppressed for decades, let’s consider Liz Warren, the former darling of the left. She’s got more flash and glamour, and showed some of what seemed sincere humility, not to mention a sense of humor, when she would appear on The Daily Show (it’s too bad that aside from an appearance in 2011, to speak up for universal health care, Bernie Sanders can no longer be “interviewed” by Jon Stewart, especially as a possibly viable candidate, a proposition that Stewart seemed to dismiss earlier this year—he was as taken by surprise as anyone), but essentially, she’s a Bernie type progressive, without the self-imposed label of “socialist.” But now, she’s plotting with Smilin’ Jack Biden… some even suggesting, with all the intrigue of a genuinely tortuous Machiavellian strategy, that the sudden talk of a Biden/Warren ticket is actually a Trojan horse, brilliantly calibrated to ensure a Clinton nomination!

Would that politicos were that smart and capable of diabolical skullduggery. Of such artistic treachery. Senator Iago.

No, as usual, at this stage, and building a drum beat that increases in tempo and volume (undoubtedly to the proportions of the soundtrack of Birdman as election day approaches) the fascinating thing about the campaigns is not the candidates, it’s all of you, the people, carrying on about your candidates. The caravan is nothing without spectators and hangers on, without camp followers, without purses full of the currency of our hopes and fears, waiting to be fleeced by the vendors in their stalls in the marketplace. But when the caravan moves on, as in that famous saying, still the only thing to be heard as the wagons diminish in size on the horizon, will be the dogs. Barking.

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Jazz on a Summer Night, A Sample

Reading Time: 1 minute
Jazz in the courtyard of the old village of Fox-Amphoux, 4 July 2015

Jazz in the courtyard of the old village of Fox-Amphoux, 4 July 2015

In rural France (indeed, in the whole country), even the tiniest villages and hamlets turn summer into a music festival. Our little village features, among other genres, jazz. We’re lucky to have some enthusiastic performers, some of them very accomplished amateurs, others professional musicians now semi-retired, as are so many of the local inhabitants.

This past year, timing being everything, we were able to catch at least one show. The favorite venue, in the courtyard in front of the 13th chapel fills with folding chairs that are gathered around the 600 year-old micocoulier. It just so happens that courtyard sits directly in front of our little house overlooking the village center. So we would always have ringside seats, schedule permitting. I decided to haul out some fancy kit I have, essentially a state-of-the-art recording studio, complete with high resolution microphones, meters, etc. that fit into a case that looks like a shaving kit.

Here’s one song, to whet your appetite. Things get a little dodgy in the higher registers, but the singing is heartfelt, and the entire 2-hour plus concert was a pleasure… It’s a song you may recognize: Samba Saravah…

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Teju Cole and the Burri Photo

Reading Time: 5 minutes

the following is an exchange that originally took place on Facebook on my “timeline” purely as the result of my posting a link (which appears first) to an opinion piece by teju cole, nytimes photography critic, novelist, new yorker magazine writer and columnist, and self-styled photographer. this ended up as a dialog, the latest of many that have occurred over the years, with me and my very good friend paul naecker, an architect and consultant currently based in los angeles. i thought it, the dialog, spontaneous and admittedly off-the-cuff ended up with a kind of validity and some might even find it of value. in all events, as it turned out, paul and i independently concluded it deserved better than facebook.

The shot by René Burri [in this New York Times piece] is the inevitable iconic image. I’ve long since admired it (even used it in a seminar I taught on architectural photography five years ago). It is, indeed, a memorable and evocative, if not a haunting, image. But I can’t for the life of me understand why anyone would be motivated to replicate in any way a photo taken by another photographer. I never have. I never will.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/23/magazine/shadows-in-sao-paulo.html?smid=fb-share&_r=0


[Paul Naecker]: H thanks for sharing this. Tejo [sic] Cole’s past work strikes one as fairly rigorous (but not w/o controversy.) This seems more a journey of discovery than imitation.


Seems more a journey of ginning up something to write about for pay. I can’t argue with that.

Clearly he wasn’t pretending to replicate Burri’s vision. Nevertheless, I wish he hadn’t even printed the one lousy shot he got (with color film, the wrong lens, on an overcast day…).

What would be even more interesting is what is evinced when comparing this with another iconic shot, speaking to the ethos of the modernist sensibility and the impact on the urban milieu in the 20th century. Shot almost exactly 50 years earlier in New York, the precursor to the international city São Paolo became:

Wall Street, Paul Strand, 1914

Wall Street, Paul Strand, 1914

 


[Paul Naecker]: The shoulders of giants eh? I prefer to follow Cole’s limited but still intriguing premise. Don’t know much about him as a photographer. But since he self-identifies as one I guess your critique is fair game.

Boulevard du Temple, Paris, Louis Daguerre, 1838

Boulevard du Temple, Paris, Louis Daguerre, 1838

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


I still believe that Barthes was closer to it, as you would no doubt suppose I would, than this premise of the “oneiric possibilities” of street photography, which is validated by that most inarticulate of men, Garry Winogrand, with his pseudo mystical claptrap about “transformation.” Garry should mainly have kept his mouth shut.

Barthes said the photograph is “a message without a code.” Not the same thing. And what Cole wants to take for dream imagery—the context for which exists, as it does for all of us, only in his own consciousness—really has more to do I suppose with contemplating the notion of the substance of a shadow. Stand still long enough and your image is recorded. Keep moving and you disappear. But this is explained by science, not metaphysics. Barthes said what a photograph tells us about its subject, no more no less, is that it existed. Period.


[Paul Naecker] : Period?
I think Cole’s position is less epistemological and more polemical. His insights aren’t really about the capacity of photography to record but rather
much more about some inference or field of memory. More writer than photographer kind of stuff. I like his lied now that I read some of his stuff. Surprised you are so negative about his world view. Apparently the guy is a Times photography critic?Interesting given his anti-colonialist writings. Most of these ‘street’ photographers don’t have much of a political space in their work right?


I was sure you (or someone, but then, who? I really kid myself sometimes…) would take me to task for seeking a differentiation in Cole’s characterization and Barthes’s famous definition. I mean, what is a dream, after all, but “a message without a code?” But then a photograph is not a dream, it merely seems at times to work the same way.

Cole is, in fact, I think, at least in his critical inquiries and analyses in The New Yorker, largely on an epistemological hunt. There are times, however, when I think that not all such inquiries, especially if they are declarations in and of themselves of a particular position against received wisdom, are polemical. I found myself agreeing with his words after the Charlie Hebdo assassinations. They were, if anything, anti-polemic.

As for his being a photographer, I haven’t seen much of his work. I thought in this day and age it’s safe for everyone to say he or she is a photographer. It’s inescapable. However, as more than one person (usually it’s a photographer who does it for a living, however meagerly; or possibly for the mere love of finding expression in the medium) has pointed out, because someone can honestly be called a photographer doesn’t necessarily grant that their work is any good. It’s a safe bet they’re not, but in this country at least, it’s almost as easy to get a gun, whose ownership should be licensed, as it is to get a camera. Plato didn’t want to exclude poets from his utopia because they were lousy poets, but because they lie. Merit has its rewards, but it shouldn’t be the foundation of a license. So, Cole is a photographer. Good on him.

But I wasn’t, in the original instance, responding to his picture taking capabilities, but to the impulse, however constrained, to track down the provenance (quite literally) of a famous photograph. We both responded to it, the photo, in what I am sure is an ultimately indistinguishable way. I called it an icon. Doubtless that’s how he views it. Yet (and not to make my favored bugaboo, invidious comparisons)I would never go on the search he did—maybe I’m just envious of his world-beating travel opportunities, which he seems to take mainly for the chance to write contextually about the venue for other purposes.

Cole, as a critic of photography, was particularly good about Saul Leiter, another unsung genius. I love Saul Leiter. And I think so does Cole. I suspect you, Paul, would also. So no argument there either.

No, yet again, I think you are reading heat in my words where, at best, there is merely an attempt at cold fusion—a safe sustainable source of critical energy, harming no one, and maybe providing some light. Of course it could be said that’s all Cole was trying to do. But I still think I’m free to question, that is, to be dubious, of his exertions, at least in their manifestation in this NYTimes article. Now, all I have to do is wait for Steve [Lipsey], the champion of all things Winogrand, to chime in about how he (the Wino-man) and Barthes also agree, for what, indeed, is a photograph that is successfully transformational—I think he meant transformative, but then I’m never quiet about how inarticulate the big lug couldn’t help but be; also, of course, I’m talking about the viewer fo the photo, and I’m simply not sure, though I can guess, that Garry meant the subject—he always speaks of taking photos for the mere purpose of seeing how something looks having been photographed, until in fact he had transformed himself into a picture taking machine—is a photograph that contains a message without a code. To that I can only say, and then I have to shut up, because this could be a book, that I can only speak for myself and my relationship to my own photographic process. And this will have to be taken on faith, because no one can dispute it, and that is, before even putting a camera to my eye, in most instances (and all photos are instances, in at least two senses), I do put it to my eye because I have “seen” a photograph and I want to attempt to capture it. If I were a painter, I am sure it wouldn’t be any different. Cole talks about his pleasure at discovering that Leiter was also a painter, and quite familiar with his contemporaries who were painters (of the same generation: Rothko, etc.). Cartier-Bresson famously started out as a man who simply made drawings (and returned to doing so, when he “retired” from picture-taking) who said that a camera was simply a much more efficient way of doing the same thing.

Perhaps it’s like capturing magic in a bottle, many many times. But once caught, it’s done (that’s all I meant by “period,” not that that’s the end to what can be said—obviously). And in Cole’s case, if he wanted to beat down São Paolo finding the vantage Burri had when capturing his bit of magic, more power to him. I’m not interested.

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Jake

Reading Time: 4 minutes
Jake

Jake

[unpublished profile fragment: 22 October 2002; travels to U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Thomas]

Jake is a smart kid. Not the kid you want your kid to be necessarily, more the kid you wish you had been. He is from Montgomery, Alabama, as ignominious, if not notorious, a place as Providence, Rhode Island, or Newark, New Jersey. But he comes, given his roots and the far-reaching peregrinations of his young life, with the onus/appeal of an accent, from the unmistakably deep South, unmistakably American.

“I know I look 15, but I’m 24,” he tells you, and in case you are not aware of the advantage, he tells you about it. When you tell him that the real advantage will come when he is 50 and looks only 32, he readily agrees. The advantage is the sort, the only sort, that counts in a man’s life, when all accounting is done – for bartenders, artists, poets, politicians and nuclear physicists – the advantage with women. Jake implies he has been with many, and among the sweeter, indeed, was one where the age differential could only have been equitable if the female, in this case at age 44, had suffered none of the gravitational influence that terrifies all women living West of the Greenwich Observatory, East of the International Dateline. As he talks about it, the corners of Jake’s mouth twist slightly at the sweet memory. He reveals the true burden of his youth in not hiding the pride he feels in having been with what less imaginative people would call “a real woman,” and leaving the distinct impression as well that he had the stuff, his unblemished complexion notwithstanding, his 20-plus year deficit notwithstanding, to leave her satisfied. And gravity played no part for either party.

As you pull out a stool at Bobby’s Bar in one of the many arcades that provide cool passage between Main Street and Waterfront Highway in Charlotte Amalie, and when you ask if he is Bobby, as he rises from a stool on the money side of the small bar that juts into the main walkway, furtively snuffing a cigarette and slipping behind the bar, he tells you, not that he is Jake, but that he is “Bobby’s bitch,” and he works here for five dollars an hour, seven days a week. Bobby is “traveling,” (as he does, it turns out, periodically; working a month, and traveling a month, apparently for pleasure – the remittance man with the best justification in the world: he is padrone, boss, sole owner). There is a kind of swagger in all this, and you know, jaded Northeasterner that you are, that he means the “bitch” part, not in the way it’s meant at Walpole prison or in Boston’s south end, but in a kind of urbane ironic way. Jake is clearly a master at creating a sympathetic resonance with any customer, including two grizzled middle-aged white guys, stragglers of some sort, toting imposing professional-looking cameras and clearly not from any cruise ship – all cruise vessels being temporarily absent from the usually teeming Charlotte Amalie harbor. To hustle tips from tourists with excess discretionary income, especially in tough times, is a craft that even the most tender-faced must master. Jake knows this is a good job, even at less than the U.S. mainland minimum wage. He gives a tutorial in staffing tourist bars in the West Indies. Among the competition, there are at least two bartenders, spelling one another, by weekday, or day part. However, Jake insists on taking on all barkeep duties. He likes having things behind the bar his way, everything in its place – essentially as Jake defines it.

We are the only customers. It is 11:30 in the morning after all, yet appropriate for a first cocktail, especially in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where, for many, rum is a breakfast drink. Jake launches into a rap that, in retrospect, is clearly well-practiced. We learn that he has traveled: for one, to Dallas, for an extended visit after college. In Dallas, despite his youth, he worked hard, tending bar, befriending the bar owner, and endearing himself (not to mention proving his value) sufficiently that the untimely death of his friend led to a recall by his boss’s widow, and the subsequent bestowal of 30% ownership of the establishment for a mere ten thousand dollars. Every month, Jake still receives a direct deposit of 30% of all revenue. It’s clearly better than a Fulbright, a kind of bibulous McArthur grant, acknowledging the genius of his native acumen and hosting skills. Dallas has become for Jake, a life goal: a “great place,” his objective for settling down, and, once he has accumulated the requisite cash, the place where he will leverage his value by buying out the place.

Among his travels is a sojourn in Japan of three and a-half months, where he sat “doing nothing,” waiting on his girlfriend who was in the island empire doing something indeterminate. In some essential way American, peripatetic (that most American of qualities), this young wanderer has, nevertheless, never been north of Memphis. And so, your native Boston remains a someday destination. You can only suspect that if there were a dollar in it, or perhaps a woman, the visit would occur.

Jake has been in Saint Thomas for 14 months, living in Frenchtown, one of the communities that make up Charlotte Amalie, the great sprawling tourist mecca and native ghetto where it seems the population lives in a kind of dignified squalor. Frenchtown is, by any account, not squalid. It is a white enclave. Given his venturesome history, and his taste for edgy experiences, it’s a little bit of dissonance to hear that Jake has elected such quarters. Or maybe it’s that quite simply, when it’s time to go home and get some rest, he wants no excitement, or surprises. Only a later interview could clear this up, and you make a note to ask him at a later opportunity [which never does present itself].

When you ask for a place to eat, not the usual tourist haunt, but a place where locals eat, Jake first mentions the obvious – well-known, unimaginative “safe” places for bourgeois tourists to congregate and consume familiar fare, as if all were adherents to the philosophy of “accidental tourism.” When you press for a name where the local fare is featured, Jake, almost apologetically reminds that he is in the habit of helping out his buddies who run several local favorite local eateries, but he does offer the name of Cozzin’s, a short walk away on Back Street (and, as it turns out later, what amounts to a sanitized version of local specialties, plus the usual offering of tourist fare: salads and burgers, with table cloths and laminated menus – you’ve been directed by Jake to what is no doubt another buddy’s place, and the closest no doubt that he can offer to what you’ve requested without compromising his loyalties). You can take the baby-faced white boy out of Alabama, you can take him around the world, but in the cultural plane you can not take him far at all.

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Destiny

Reading Time: 1 minute

We realize our destinies clearly, and consciously, only in retrospect. As we review our behavior and our deliberative actions, especially long afterwards and truly best recollected in tranquility, we may not end up with poetry. However even the most prosaic of lives will reveal the pattern we express in a likely unconscious way, most of the time. Too often, the conscious sense that “I am destined for greatness (to be President, a jazz saxophonist, a world-famous painter…)” is really altering the pattern after the garment is cut and sewn. It also, of course, in terms of how the rest of the world must alter itself to your presumed destiny, is at the root of the Chinese adage about being careful what you wish for. Too many wishes are transmuted, after being accomplished, as instances of destiny. They aren’t. It’s actually natural to aim high. The destiny is inherent in sticking to what we choose to do. How many of us aim low, and later ascribe the inevitable success to destiny? This too isn’t destiny. It’s comedy, though of a different sort than that which finds us laughing, if only into our hands, at the king.

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