Nothing Changes, 1879 Edition

Approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes

Mark Twain, 1909. By Photographer: A.F. Bradley in his studio. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Mark Twain wrote the following piece the year previous to the tumultuous and critical election year for President of 1880. Only 15 years after the Civil War had ended. The incumbent, Rutherford B. Hayes, had run in 1876 with the promise that he would not seek re-election – a promise he kept… astonishingly to our modern sensibilities. As a result the election was highly contested.

Recall, for perspective, that the country had already weathered the initial vagaries of Reconstruction, the various eruptions of corruption that marred the chances for a more peaceful process of reconciliation between the north and south, or for the assimilation of African-Americans, now fully established as citizens with rights (albeit what these were, and their extent continued to be contested). It had weathered the chaotic and tumultuous administration of Andrew Johnson, the martyred Lincoln’s successor, and as a great exponent of exploiting his office for purposes of politically biassed exercise of power. It had weathered the previously unrivaled level of corruption revealed in the administration of President Grant, sullying the reputations of all but the General himself.

The election was precedent-setting for several reasons. Unlike today, there was, in practical terms, virtually total engagement of the electorate. More people voted, as a percentage of the whole population in the 1880 election than had ever occurred previously in the United States. The vote could hardly have been more evenly split. The winner, James Garfield (who ran with Chester A. Arthur as Vice President, later to succeed him to the highest office) garnered a majority of the popular vote over his rival,  Winfield Scott Hancock, the Democratic Party candidate. The vote was split by a difference, in the final tally, of less than 2,000 votes nationally. But in electoral terms, although each candidate won an equal number of states (19 to each), Garfield’s electoral votes were entirely from the more densely populated, urbanized and industrialized north, including Oregon in the enclave of Pacific and Mountain states that existed in a kind of civic isolation from the rest of the country, separated by what was then still the territories (and therefore non-voting) of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming. This band of not-yet-enfranchised territory included the contiguous Dakota territory, not yet divided, and that of Montana. Importantly, the Democrat Hancock’s victory in the entirety of what had been the formerly secessionist southern states, plus Texas, Delaware, Maryland, and New Jersey, set the precedent that persisted for decades, of a solidly Democratic south. Until the the first third of the ensuing century the liberal banner was carried by the Republican Party – the classic notion of the “party of Lincoln” as the nucleus of progressive ideas, a notion now obviously defunct. Curiously, and consistent with the bizarre unpredictability of the American electorate, the one state Hancock did not manage to carry, and whose allotment of electoral votes would nearly have reversed the outcome (as opposed to ensuring the landslide that was Garfield’s) was Pennsylvania… still a contested state and, today, a potential game changer if President Trump does not manage to retain his advantage there in 2016. For perspective, if Hancock had won Pennsylvania, he would have lost the Presidency by a very slim two electoral votes.

In any event, whatever the actual political reality and the culture that inspired Twain to write this piece as he did, he does seem to have captured, as he did so often, what it turns out is an enduring, perhaps, in a sense, a genetic, characteristic of the peculiar and continuously unpredictable condition of what the electorate will find not just tolerable, but acceptable about its would-be representatives.

The “moral crimes” of Twain’s imaginary contestant for the office, qualified to run sufficiently by his own lights (the only ones that count, as apparently has long been the case in our country, if not from the beginning) despite his peccadilloes, may seem mild by comparison to what passes for business as usual in Washington or what is considered a candidate’s “private business” and of no bearing in fitness for office. But those were gentler times, and we and the politicians, have had just over 140 years since then to invent far more ingenious ways of interpolating tolerance for depravity into our perception of normal behavior, and the same amount of time to have our sense of outrage ground down, possibly to only a trace presence in our consciences.

“An Open Letter to My Countrymen”

I have pretty much made up my mind to run for President. What the country wants is a candidate who cannot be injured by investigation of his past history so that the enemies of the party will be unable to rake up anything against him that nobody ever heard of before. If you know the worst about a candidate to begin with, every attempt to spring things on him will be checkmated. Now I am going to enter the field with an open record. I am going to own up in advance to all the wickedness I have done, and if any Congressional committee is disposed to prowl around my biography in the hope of discovering any dark and deadly deed that I have secreted, why—let it prowl.

In the first place, I admit that I treed a rheumatic grandfather of mine in the winter of 1850. He was old and inexpert in climbing trees, but with the heartless brutality that is characteristic of me I ran him out of the front door in his nightshirt at the point of a shotgun and caused him to bowl up a maple tree, where he remained all night, while I emptied shot into his legs. I did this because he snored. I will do it again if I ever have another grandfather. I am as inhuman now as I was in 1850.

I candidly acknowledge that I ran away at the battle of Gettysburg. My friends have tried to smooth over this fact by asserting that I did so for the purpose of imitating Washington, who went into the woods at Valley Forge for the purpose of saying his prayers. It was a miserable subterfuge. I struck out in a straight line for the Tropic of Cancer because I was scared. I wanted my country saved, but I preferred to have someone else save it. I entertain that preference yet. If the bubble reputation can be obtained only at the cannon’s mouth, I am willing to go there for it, provided the cannon is empty. If it is loaded, my immortal and inflexible purpose is to get over the fence and go home.

My invariable practice in war has been to bring out of every fight two-thirds more men than when I went in. This seems to me to be Napoleonic in its grandeur.

My financial views are of the most decided character, but they are not likely, perhaps, to increase my popularity with the advocates of inflation. I do not insist upon the special supremacy of rag money or hard money. The great fundamental principle of my life is to take any kind I can get.

The rumor that I buried a dead aunt under my grapevine was correct. The vine needed fertilizing, my aunt had to be buried, and I dedicated her to this high purpose. Does that unfit me for the Presidency?

The Constitution of our country does not say so. No other citizen was ever considered unworthy of this office because he enriched his grapevines with his dead relatives. Why would I be selected as the first victim of an absurd prejudice?

I admit, also, that I am not a friend of the poor man. I regard the poor man, in his present condition, as so much wasted raw material. Cut up and properly canned, he might be made useful to fatten the natives of the Cannibal Islands and to improve our export trade with that region. I shall recommend legislation upon the subject in my first message. My campaign cry will be: “Desiccate the poor workingman; stuff him into sausage.”

These are about the worst parts of my record. On them I come before the country. If my country don’t want me, I will go back again. But I recommend myself as a safe man—a man who starts from the basis of total depravity and proposes to be fiendish to the last.

—Mark Twain
“Let’s Look at the Record”
Harper’s Magazine, July 1954
Reprinted from the
Kansas City Journal, June 15, 1879

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Just Another Covid-19 Day

Approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes

For far too much of my life so far, in far too many ways and moments, dealing with feelings has been no more and no less than an either/or proposition. Too often I have to decide consciously whether to let something pass by as simply as my teeming consciousness will allow, or do I allow myself to embroider intellectually along the same lines as some unbalanced intrusion of active thought about something, real or imagined, has propelled me. And even with this particular perfectly understandable state of mind expressed as I have, I do wonder, “am I kidding myself? do I have any control really over what I’m thinking and how? Is this where I concentrate on my breath and only the exhalations and inhalations until what I can only describe metaphorically as a “storm” passes—I’ll illustrate how these things work with this interpolation of an interruption of my interruption of my own thoughts: more specifically, speaking of storms, I’ve just learned of a cytokine storm, thanks to the deluge of information that’s surging unstoppably from every digital portal and orifice on the internet with regard to all facts Covidian, and I pay attention to such things, at least at this level of specificity because through no fault of my own, save the fault of voluntary longevity (understand I don’t mean I actively will myself to keep living, though it’s not far from that I suppose, or I could be persuaded, I mean simply that I am not voluntarily ending it – and come on, you know what “it” is – and therefore keep going until factors wholly beyond my control given the prevailing conditions that might and inevitably will obtain at the time determine otherwise—like a “cytokine storm,” which is not so much preventable, but with a few ounces of luck avoidable given an otherwise healthy prevailing set of conditions regardless of age, though, and here’s the point, someone my age is more susceptible to such a storm, which nature means to protect the organism in younger specimens, but if it runs away with itself, the prevention can be the instrument of danger, or the by now terribly worn trope of a “perfect storm,” which if it has anything of conceptual ideality about it, it’s not perfection the conditions embody so much as unmitigated chaos.

And the particular either/or I’ve had to deal with now for what is going on five years is what will inevitably come to be called in an institutional way (instead of the merely contingent media-driven facile rhetorical convenience it is, because we’re living it in what NASA taught us nearly 50 years ago to call “real time”) the Age of Trump, is the either/or of paying any attention whatsoever to what the news channels, in whatever medium, but for me, mainly digital media and mainly in the form of readable text on a screen, has determined should vie for my attention, trying to capture it for long enough to draw me in for engagement longer than can be measured in seconds or fractions of them.

I’m simply talking about the channels I have chosen to focus my attention on a regular basis. It’s a small number. So the phenomenon universally is compounded to some nearly incalculable number of occurrences of what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about, even merely on the web sites of the mainstream press, and being the cultural manifestation of my generation that I am, I have to face it, like it or not, this means The New York Times, The New Yorker, and to a lesser extent, The Washington Post and The Guardian (daily cancelling each other out, circling one another as they do, around a center to which one stands fixedly well to the left, and the other waveringly, but discernibly, on the right), are the daily doses of trying yet new angles—and usually failing to be new, but the attempts never cease—on the vagaries and failings of the personality known possibly to more of the first world than any other personality made manifest as a living person at any time in the past 50 years at this point.

There is a perpetual contest to dig up yet new ways to tally the shortcomings and failings of the behavior and character of Donald John Trump. It stopped being interesting four years ago. It stopped long since being anything but raw fuel, inherently pernicious for being spent in the production of the heat it produces—whatever the nominal benefit that heat was intended to provide; though it never does anything now but make things infernally hot—kind of like an endless supply of wood pellets for the furnace in the basement of our souls, for preserving a constant state of anxiety. Constancy being the quality, the only quality necessary, to define such a state as existential.

Rather than having such a defective human being become the nucleus of my inescapable inner sensation of dread, I avoid such “news” whenever I can. Further, I simply do not read anything labeled as “opinion” (and we are way past any jocular reference to the Dude’s mantra, as a way of lightening any notion that what one person, usually someone I’ve never heard of before and will likely never hear about, or want to, again says as “just your opinion, man”—which is to differentiate the non-entities from the media’s featured players who long since proved, and retired the evidence long since as irrefutable of the fact, of their idiocy or stupidity or thickness or dullness or opacity of mind by whatever trope you prefer: I mean of course the likes of David Brooks and his entire cadre… to these folks I stopped paying any attention whatsoever about two years ago, and the sight of their names in running text of any authorship, by way of allusion or reference, is a marker of text I should avoid, with a bookmark against the author of that text to watch for warily in the future, because why would I want to read what someone who has wasted their precious time being simply alive engaged in the reading of a syllable from the endless Brooksian stream of syllables, as in, to paraphrase Capote, “those aren’t thoughts at all, those are phonemes?”

But now, as would be predictable, it continues, even as we are in the midst of only just beginning to become sensible of the impact the prophylactic and preventative measures being imposed clearly with more of a sense of contingency—that is, as doable, rather than as a measure of their known efficacy, and hence compelling and necessary even to a moron—than of exigency (a status that China seems, we hope, to have begun to pass out of, and that Italy, woefully and tragically is fully immersed in) to mitigate not so much the present, but the future, the immediate future for sure, but the ongoing future as well, if we may permit ourselves even to speak of what will follow after some indeterminate date in the next few months as an assured “ongoing future” for everyone who comes out at the other end with a life that has not been extinguished. I mean literally, but in many other senses as well—there is a growing torrent of articles that are enumerating, analyzing, and dissecting all the ways, what are quickly becoming a practically uncountable number of ways, in which the Donald has fucked up, or demonstrated an incapacity for doing anything other than fucking up, or how his life is a summation, only discernible (fantastically “only”) at this point of consummation, here on the precipice of a humanitarian disaster of previously rarely, if ever, rivaled proportions.

How in god’s name (or God’s name, if you like; or anyone’s name; or how by any contrivance or invocation you like) is it going to make things better sooner and less catastrophic by even talking about what he does or doesn’t do about the Covid-19 threat as unsuitable?

Though in my opinion, which is not worth much, I’ll admit, in the larger scheme of things, beyond the locus of, say, the property I own in the world, which is maybe, in sum, about ⅓ of an acre, which symbolically is probably even less than the locus of the scheme of David Brooks’s opinion’s worth (if only by the scale of the income that dumb son of a bitch takes in for a living), we long since passed the point where what anyone has to say about the Donald is worth lingering for more than the time it takes to turn the page (figuratively on a digital device, or literally). Any attention he receives at this point is too much, and prolongs the agony of his monstrous impact on the lives of all the other humans on the planet. Surely talking about how his stupidity, cupidity, narcissism, or any of his myriad inadequacies are only making the possibility of improvement of the present global threat more difficult, because it’s a distraction that’s not beneficial, and in fact, compounds the agony, which by now we all know is inevitable pretty much for all of us, one way or another.

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Corona Fever

Approximate Reading Time: 6 minutes

“Social distancing? Hey! No big deal. I never really liked you anyway.”

shows the empty paper goods aisle

From the rear of the store, to the front, Bath Tissue and Facial Tissue (and, note, Paper Towel as well). Appropriately, Aisle 13. Friday the 13th, March 2020, 10 am. Giant Supermarket, Wynnewood PA

It’s mid-morning. About 10:30am. The store, a suburban Whole Foods Market, opens at 8. I exit the store with my two reusable shopping bags, festooned with WFM logos and nowhere near full with my short haul of singular items, a few apples, a couple of fresh pastry items, a partial loaf of sourdough bread baked in huge bâtards and then cut into quarters, bagged and weighed and sold by the pound. A chocolate bar. Those sorts of things. No staples.

I dodge and weave through other shoppers’ carts. In front of me, as I get near the produce section at the front doors, a woman stands next to her heavily burdened shopping cart, filled to the brim with a variety of groceries. On top of these, held gingerly in place with her left hand, a stack of five paste-board packages—the standard package for a pound of sliced, cured and smoked pork belly. Bacon to most of us. Five pounds seems a lot, but is not inconsistent with the mounds of other foodstuffs in her carriage. I don’t linger even a moment to see what other comestibles are featured in this matron’s haul.

I think immediately and fleetingly of the usual coroner’s expression I’ve heard repeated so often on my favorite streaming British detective series—a “well-nourished female in apparent good health, of about middle age.” The store in fact is full of such subjects, all very much alive of course, regardless of my morbid speculations and associations. I think even more fleetingly of why she, and her cohort, and the dads, and the nanas, and the myriad children I would otherwise have expected on a friday morning, a warm one in an early spring of persistent and no longer unusual mildness, not to be clinging to sleeves and shopping carts, and pulling items off shelves. I would have thought they’d be in classrooms doing what school children do these days.

And I realize the teeming aisles of this prosperous suburb, Wynnewood, Pennsylvania (media home value just north of half a million dollars), are as full as the township’s school building corridors must be empty. But not because of spring break; that was originally scheduled for a month from now. I’ve learned in the interim, schools were closed on Tuesday, three days ago, because two students and a school staff member may have been exposed to the area’s first reported case of the virus – a Children’s Hospital cardiologist serving in a satellite clinic in nearby King of Prussia. He has been in the ICU at UPenn Hospital downtown since the discovery he was positive.

The schools were to have been cleaned and sanitized and reopened, but, as in neighboring Cheltenham School Disrict, they remain closed for the week.

Here at the Whole Foods, which bursts with boisterous life, and has increasingly depleted shelves of stocks, there are nine register lanes. Eight are open. All are full. I’m guessing after the fact there are about six or seven carts in each lane. I am guessing about every two out of three carts is full to the top of the cart. These are mainly full-size grocery carts, rather than the smaller, two-tier carts, which are in every event in much shorter supply anyway.

The people in line are civilians. By this, I mean, they are not part of the usual and sizable brigade of Amazon Prime shoppers, who use the same carts and fill them to the same brims – usually every day of the week as increasing numbers of consumers exploit the generous Amazon policy of free same day delivery of groceries in orders in excess of $25 placed by their premium customers (called “Prime” as is the membership program which entitles them to such, and other similar, amenities).

I am by now used to the brigades of Prime shoppers who normally manage quietly to stay out of the way of legitimate consumers fending for their own urban foraging needs. But even as much as they clog their specially designated deployment area, the deployment zone keeps growing as the shopping service beneficiaries mushroom in number. It now encroaches on a section of the store that originally served as an area for customers to dine on the prepared foods for which the chain is justly famous. Where there had been a dozen tables seating six at a time, there are now three that serve to seat maybe two or three disparate customers who try to keep their mutual distance, and consume their pizza slices or fresh salads as quickly as they can before moving on.

But for now, as in those rare historical moments that adverse weather reports predicted as imminent, and usually in mid-winter and delineated in terms of massive snow accumulations and blizzard-like conditions, the platoons of professional grocery stock pullers are far outnumbered by the expeditionary force of an army of householders preparing for the siege of an invisible enemy that demands adherence to that defensive term of art in the peculiar stiff bureaucratic rhetoric of public security enforcers, first heard as a recommended tactic for those under siege by only too palpable wielders of only too real armament. These shoppers are provisioning for sheltering in place.

And what is most unnerving is that there is no definitive sense of when the siege will end. But, while the prospects for toilet tissue are equally unclear, it’s a good bet some of us will always have bacon.

I did have a chance to do a very informal survey of what is disappearing from the shelves.

I knew a week ago, when I went to look in supermarkets, drugstores, big box, whatever, the usual suspects, there was no hand sanitizer in any size to be had. At the Whole Foods, the price leader brands of pasta – Whole Foods own, and the Italian brand De Cecco – stocked with the greatest variety of shapes and sizes and the least deviation from the vanilla of pasta grains #1 semolina are being depleted. Today, they are pretty much gone, and the much higher priced premium imports, the kinds with convolute names and made with convoluted antique bronze dies and allowed to air dry, have also (amazingly to me) begun to disappear.

Cheaper mass-market brands of canned tomato products were already well-gone and the more recent hebdomadal toll sees a decimated reserve of the authenticated, certificated San Marzano stocks. Somehow consistently, I do note that the olive oil shelves are as depleted as I’ve ever seen them, and Whole Foods being who they are tend to stock only the EVOO varieties of oils, whatever the points of origin (or bottling: information which must be sought scrupulously on the label, and usually in virtually no-point size type, next to the names of the countries of origin of the olives which may have been pressed in Italy, but are about as Italian by derivation as my great uncle Sol of Ukraine).

At the Giant Supermarket, just across Wynnewood Rd, and slightly south of the WFM, in a strip mall with other somewhat more downscale retailers, including a Bed Bath and Beyond and an Old Navy, there are no more paper products to be had. To wipe one’s bum, or any other body part, or the kitchen counter.

I don’t check the pasta shelves at Giant, kind of knowing what to expect, but I do note that virtually every kind of packaged rice product is in extremely limited supply, as are most of the processed tomato sauces in jars and cans. I don’t check the raw goods shelves.

I am so astonished by the vast expanse of shelf space in the paper goods aisle, I have to take a rare photo. I’ve not seen shelves so empty in a consumer store of such magnitude since I was given privileged access to the first Staples store in the world, prior to its opening, prior to its stocking, some 35 years ago.

It bespeaks emptiness. I mean in the sense of the hollow lack of accord that somehow, whatever the calamity, hummed in the interpersonal spaces and voids and promised, even if only in an inchoate way, assurance of a return sooner than later to some kind of normalcy. Now, I am not so sure.

And the little sign, tucked in the crevice of the long unbroken expanse of tier on tier of emptiness of this most basic, dare I say fundamental, of symbolic necessities in our modern sense of inhabiting a coherent and resilient society, offers no reassurance of any kind in the platitudinous eviscerated insincerity of corporate speak.

Corporate apology note for running out of TP

Corporate sorry from Giant, for running out of toilet paper, facial tissues, in fact anything absorbent made of paper. The sign, you should note, is tucked between the “Sensitive Wet Wipes” and the “Gentle Clean Wet Wipes” shelf talkers.

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Cacophony

Approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes

Toyota dealer waiting room

Sitting in the local Toyota dealership waiting room for the service area. I am here with about a dozen other customers waiting for their vehicles to be evaluated for service, a cost to be estimated, and then for the work to be done.

Like most customer-minded modern businesses, the waiting room has an array of amenities, including vending machines for packaged goodies (mainly candy bars and pastries), several urns of coffee in vacuum pump reservoirs in a choice of flavors, including decaf and hot water for tea.

There is another vending machine for cold beverages, including bottled water, the ubiquitous Dasani, which is, I believe, a brand of Coca-Cola and its bottlers.

There are three large-screen monitors, two above my head which I have to crane my neck to view. One of these features a live Instagram feed of marketing and promotional material related to the dealership itself. The other screen, silenced seems mainly to be showing a succession of commercials from a variety of advertisers, including Mayor Mike Bloomberg, a variety of law firms of local provenance, etc. It does seem, now that I watch for about 30 seconds, to be tuned to the local major affiliate for ABC. At this hour of the morning (it’s just about to turn 9:30) the show is “Live Kelly and Ryan,” which features the eponymous perpetually mirthful hosts speaking to a round robin of guests who are there to tout whatever it is they are touting, and to bathe in the prompted glorification from the studio audience, consisting of hooting, cheers, laughter, much clapping and general expressions of guiltless, non-judgmental approbation.

The screen, about four feet above my head and located about eight feet on center from my field of vision, repeats the content of the screen on the opposite wall across the waiting room, above the alcoved coffee station. There is a mate across the way as well to the screen with the live “house” feed of marketing information.

The screen near me is muted. The screen behind me provides the main sound track for the entirety of the waiting room, which has a capacity, I would approximate, of about four times as many individuals as now occupy the space. In addition to the endless stream of mirth and enthusiasm that issues from the programming stream of Kelly and Ryan’s production, including all commercial messages (all, in some way, hopeful and upbeat, even when advertising the services of advocates for personal justice when a malign social milieu has, unjustified and fearfully, targeted the consumer’s well-being for the usual mayhem laden reasons: suits of various kinds, including divorce, malpractice, fraud, etc.).

However, in addition to this foundational layer of sound, there are additional ceaseless audible tracks from various sources located on vectors that are no doubt random and accidental, but which serve to present a current of perpetual counterpoint one to another, and challenging the listener, to exercise a significant effort of mindful aural focus. It’s the only way to distinguish one stream of audible content from another.

The effect is not unlike, say, a rough mix of the intended soundtrack of a more artfully crafted (and intended) work of cinematic presentation…very reminiscent, in fact, of a Robert Altman movie, any of the iconic ones, like MASH, Nashville, or a film from his oeuvre sometimes criticized for its extremity of sound effects, McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

The difference being, of course, that, successfully or not, Altman sought to encourage the willing viewer not only to focus, but sharpen their observational and analytical skills on the strength of more than mere visual cues and image manipulation, as one would expect from an art form like the cinema, and learn something about the cumulative and aggregate impact of a nexus of discrete and individualized coded aural content occurring stochastically in a suburban Toyota dealer showroom. Here in the specific waiting room of the Ardmore Toyota dealer’s service facility, the effect is to create, as stated, a cacophony.

The only aural signals that register and capture the attention of the listener, providing a focus, are those arising randomly from the throats of the platoon of service representatives who are monitoring the progress of all jobs being shepherded and tended to in the system. Every so often a name is announced, usually the surname of the customer, and a head twitches or jerks, or perhaps less spasmodically reorients and signals attentiveness, turning like a dish antenna in the direction of the interjection.

A hushed conference ensues, and the service representative returns to his or her station with the consent of the owner to proceed. This is usually the only hushed or modulated verbal exchange that occurs in the course of the morning.

Usually other conversations are conducted at not merely audible levels to a narrow locus of accidental listeners in the vicinity of the communicant – and almost needless to say representing one end of a multi-sided exchange by means of the ubiquitous smart phone. Every customer seems to have one. Every customer seems to have recourse to its use one way or another during the course of their vigil attendant to the mending or possibly merely the preventative maintenance of their vehicle. Most engagements by phone seem to have nothing at all to do with the immediate mission at hand. The calls have nothing to do with the vehicle.

Rather, and this is immediately evident, as no conversation—none—is conducted discretely at the murmurous level called for by etiquette and even only a token amount of self-regard. Rather all and sundry in the waiting room are privy to any and all business that occurs ex tempore.

Those scattered about the room not engaged in a magazine, not staring blankly at a television screen, not volubly holding up their end of an inevitably and quite evidently wholly banal confabulation, one of doubtless millions being conducted at any daylight moment throughout the entire great nation of ours, and all through the miracle of a slab of silicon and other much rarer minerals, are using their phones as a personal amplification systems, conveying the soundtrack of what may be a visual display of live action or other animated programming, or perhaps merely providing musical accompaniment as a kind of anodyne relief from the montony of waiting for the mechanic to get done.

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Crazy like Insane

Approximate Reading Time: 3 minutes

It often happens that, like any number of people, I wonder what it’s like to be insane, to see and be conscious of the world as someone who is undeniably unmoored intellectually. Even retaining the power of intelligible speech is not a validation of rational thought going on. Nor that perceptions are accurate. The “reality” of the insane is what is in question.

It takes a village to make an idiot

It occurred to me the other day, as a thought experiment more than as a test, surely the seemingly held beliefs of our president, his version of the world we inhabit that we have categorized and organized and attempted to manage as a societal and political construct of significant complexity, is reducible to a limited set of conditions, controllable and manipulable. By the right management practice, our complex world can be regulated – though ironically, one condition of his stated universe is that the unregulated freedom to act, for individuals, but especially for organizations, and especially those that have, through some kind of evolutionary inevitability, aggregated vast amounts of wealth and power is a fundamental condition to sustain not just permanence, but healthy growth with no calculable end point.

The upshot of this baseline set of conditions, the result of it, is allegedly to be prosperity for all, invulnerability for our nation in a world that vastly outnumbers us and encompasses a far greater share of the planet’s land mass, and preeminence as a leader by example for our collective moral and ethical universe. I stand ready to be corrected in this encapsulated summary.

Now my thought experiment consists of this: imagine believing not only the premise, as I’ve summarized it, and interpreted through your own understanding of our president’s utterances on a range of topics, but the many manifestations of how the premise applies to the great variety of human endeavor, affecting our daily lives, our ability to govern ourselves, our ability to live with and work with our fellow citizens productively, and our ability to exist on the same planet with upwards of 190 other nations and over seven billion other human beings, never mind the vast natural habitat, the fauna and flora that exist on earth. How we conduct ourselves, and how we relate to our fellow citizens and the citizens of all other places on earth where they reside, can be deduced, though sometimes through tortured syntax, seeming internal contradictions, through the provable lack of logic, through the defiance of generally accepted scientific fact, through tautology, and through a form of perseveration.

Imagine you believe all that in the same way and to the same degree of certainty you believe in certain basic ineluctable verities, let’s say the daily cycle of 24 hours, the 365 day annual passage of the planet in a more or less regular orbit around the sun—or any other small set of verities of similar ilk you’d rather as a point of reference—and imagine thinking that, and all of it true, without cease, and despite arguments to the contrary that might break through some threshold of awareness of the world and other people, and channels of communication, you maintain to sustain your sense of well-being. Does it feel normal? Putting your everyday fears, anxieties, uncertainties, pent-up feelings of anger and resentment – things we all feel, likely – and concentrating on this core of belief, do you feel it’s sane to feel what you believe to be so. Do you think it would be safe for everyone to believe it? Can you live with that going on in your head?

Digiprove sealCopyright  © 2019 Howard Dinin

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Artist’s Statement

Approximate Reading Time: 7 minutes

First let me state, categorically, that I am not one of those people who is crazy about artist’s statements. Not from others, above all, but these are easy to avoid. And not from myself, so there are very few such verbal excrescences in my history. But accepting the current premise that it should be short, and in my own words, with every effort made to avoid jargon and pretense, and honest and forthright.

Second, let me offer, as caveat, the second part, below, though honest, is not necessarily true in all its parts. It is closer to art itself, however, I think, to leave the reader to decide for him or her or itself which parts are which.

Any number of people do wonder, especially of late, given my long history as a photographer, just what I am up to, and just how my current work departs, or let’s say progresses, beyond what may be the natural drift of the Dinin canon of images, collected now for over 50 years. There are those who believe they reveal a style that is identifiable. I would hope so. And unique. Even more so.

I am never sure myself that I am moving into areas of what I am very reluctant to call explorations, because it sounds poncey and like the kind of thing I was encouraged to do when I was 10 and betraying “creative” tendencies. I resisted, as it turns out in the full course of my life I have resisted everything, and I merely contented myself with taking photographs of things that struck me as photographable and worth recording (that is, using up costly resources and time).

It was possible after the passage of a number of years, at least the ones between the age of ten (if not, in actuality, earlier) and the age at which I learned with the full impact of its meaning a word that those who know me really really well knows is one of my favorite words of all time, that is, “quotidian.” It qualifies my favorite subject. The mundane, ordinary, largely unsung and, let’s face it, unnoticeable, details of existence as we plod through our all too brief lives continuously, albeit aware of its passage only from moment to moment.

The virtue of photography, the medium of the moment.

photographs I am working on now | a gloss on two images

Lately, I’ve taken to recording real quotidian moments. And as my quotidian, like that of so many people, especially in first world countries, consists of a certain amount of time spent in front of an illuminated screen, watching whatever I like to watch (an irrelevant facet of this subject as far as I’m concerned, so forget about it). I am interested in the image. I’m interested in the randomness of what we take in in our field of vision. I’m also interested in getting a well exposed photograph when I choose to press the shutter release.

So I have a small body of images of late, say the least six years, which is about the span of our household acquisition of a large screen monitor for watching video content – a 55 inch plasma screen. Most of my images were recorded from this device. But others were recorded from the screens of smaller devices, including a phone, a tablet, and a 27” color corrected monitor on my production desktop (I call it that, because that’s where I do serious manipulation of images).

Some of these images have leaked into the stream of images I deign to share in various forms on internet media.

Today, I am posting an image that was recorded deliberately with some sense of it constituting a genre, perhaps peculiar to me, but I doubt that. It is truly peculiar only when considered in the context of all other images I’ve taken, lately, and always. So a particular understanding can be gotten only by those people throughly familiar with images I have been making, as I said, for several decades. There’s, I figure, oh about three or four of you. Talk about small audiences. But I don’t mind.

The first image here is a screen capture of a thoroughly obscure attempt by a British production company to make a successful video series of a very idiosyncratic, if not wholly baroque sequence of detective novels by a Brit (and not the first one with a jones for ginning up Italian crime novels) named Michael Dibdin. It lasted for three episodes before being cancelled. His hero is named Aurelio Zen (an odd name, even to Italians, and explained as being because he’s from Venice—I have no idea what this means, and I don’t care). They didn’t stint on the production, and even got some eye candy performers, it happens with acting ability, to play the major parts. Rufus Sewell (who did a particularly splendid job of distinguishing himself as more than a pretty boy by playing the role of Queen Victoria’s mentor and first prime minister, Lord Melbourne, for PBS Masterpiece. Though Sewell is, today, a somewhat youthful 51, he took the role about two years ago, and played it as written, as a sickly, vaguely decrepit, but clearly still attractive, middle-aged man on the brink of death. It was only six years before that he played the much more youthful role of Zen – for all the good it did his career; though I’m not sure what was expected by those Brits who played the series seriously, shooting on location in Rome, with all roles assumed by Brits, playing native Italians, except for the love interest, who, it happened, was Italian, Caterina Murino, and whose claim to fame then was that she was the first Bond Woman in the first of the rebooted series of James Bond epics, starring Daniel Craig. Murino played a beauty, entangled with the villain, and suffers a horrible fate at his hands. In the role, as these things often go, she played a Greek. Must have been money determining nationality of characters; it made no sense otherwise.

But neither here nor there. I provide all these details deliberately and also fairly sure they in some way inform, except it’s too late now to tell, the viewer’s perception and appreciation, if any, of my first image, It’s entitled “Now Watching Zen, Zen.”

Now Watching Zen, Zen

The other photo seems more characteristic of a lot of other work of mine, but I will insist that, in fact, it’s informed by this latest impulsive strain of mine to capture what I’ll call, I hope intriguingly, packaged quotidian. Like most video concepts these days.

It’s a moment caught in the wild, while I was out in one of my rare public forays for any purpose other than to go shopping for food at Whole Foods Market, or for prescriptions at CVS. It records a phenomenon that I have taken note of for some time, and is a real thing, I am positive, though little noted by others, and certainly not by the world at large.

It is the little studied phenomenon of what, for lack of any formal term I have encountered, has to be called “womansplaining,” which is also the title of the second image. There is no need to belabor the phenomenon, duly noted long since by many, and having passed into the common vocabulary, of mansplaining, which is reprehensible and comical at once, and doesn’t deserve any attention from me, I don’t think. But decide for yourself and write to me; we’ll discuss it, as long as I don’t have to explain anything. Whatever other, possibly more sober and serious analysis of the phenomenon is, I will speculate, not only likely, but if it is or it isn’t, it’s not compelling enough to explore in a scholarly fashion. Someone will help me out I am positive, whether I invite the assistance or not.

Womansplaining, as I have fashioned it, and as I have observed it, is the manner in which one woman explains to another woman the immediate subject or topic in a series of these during what is often a wide-ranging verbal engagement. It is rarely a conversation, except for stock, usually terse rejoinders by the woman in the de facto role of listener, to keep the pace of social intercourse at a rate most likely to dispel detectable boredom or ennui in either participant. In short, the woman engaged in womansplaining is also usual the participant who commandeers the conversation, setting its agenda, and delving into the narrative with a level of detail that is sometimes astonishing to witness for its breadth somehow combined with specificity. Many items I would assume, but I am the wrong gender, so I’m probably wildly off here, were of the type that fall under the rubric of speaking for themselves, if not altogether self-evident. But I have long since discovered that, all matters of gender aside, I am a poor judge of what is of due importance to others. They will decide for themselves. I know they will. They always do. I’ve observed it many times.

The explanations in these exchanges can get quite complex, not merely in terms of verbal content, but combined with a concomitant (apparently standard) repertoire of manual gestures and gesticulations. You can tell what’s being said is important because of all the hand jive. That’s not fair, I know. But I’ll leave it.

The exchange recorded here was captured in a suburban restaurant that serves excellent ethnic food. It was only sparsely attended by patrons at lunchtime, but I happen to know most of its business occurs in the evening hours. During the course of the exchange I witnessed, and admittedly I did not observe every moment, never mind closely, as we were sitting three tables away. and mainly concerned with actually eating, interspersed with an actual conversation, I can honestly say now I did not observe either participant in the distant exchange consume one bite of food.

Womansplaining

I wasn’t sure I should craft the following coda to this statement, but I can see it presents a little opportunity for doing something else that’s not so characteristic for me: a little merchandising… you know, marketing and promotion.

I wish only to observe about these images, which are suggestive of the totality of the impact I think they embody, like so many of my images, if not all of them, they would best be appreciated as actual objets d’art, that is, physical prints on photographic materials, rendered as I wish them to be seen as closely as I can, with all my skill, manage the process. Anyone wishing to see either of these images as prints should contact me directly and privately.

Digiprove sealCopyright  © 2018 Howard Dinin

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Complacent

Approximate Reading Time: 3 minutes

It is only in my lifetime to my knowledge, and largely restricted to the Anglo northern semi-continent of North America that individuals with Jewish forebears have relaxed a vigilance that most Jews of the modern era have instilled in them from birth. Having been born only within about a year after the ovens of the camps in Germany and Eastern Europe were extinguished, and as the first generation son of a couple of immigrants from that same enclave — whose families were tormented, if not outright killed, by their gentile neighbors in Russia, and whose immediate relatives sought refuge with them to the West – I was regularly, if passively and, so to speak, tenderly made mindful of the threat, however covert, “out there.” Whatever the outcome in terms of my faith, and in time I repudiated the religion of my fathers, I was never allowed to forget I was a Jew. Someone intent on making me suffer, if not worse, for that sole reason, would not care how devout or heretical I might be.

Blacks, I always understood, would have it worse throughout their lives, as they each wear their identity on their skin, and I have never encountered anyone of African descent, however remotely it could be traced, who, in some part of their conscious minds, was not aware of being the subject of a potential hostile gaze. At the very least.

Periodically, and it is happening again now, at this moment, because of the massacre of Squirrel Hill, Jews remind themselves of what too many are lulled into forgetting—a state of mind few African-Americans seem to allow themselves to indulge in. So vast is our country, and so large is our still growing population, that it has happened for virtually every identifiable ethnicity or sect or nationality that has found shelter in it that seemingly for them, if not ever for all, and never all at once, there is no longer a cause for alarm. No longer a need to fear bigotry, oppression, bodily injury or mortal danger.

However, it seems necessary every time there is an unexpected upheaval (and doesn’t a lack of vigilance, or a mere lack of staying alert, a lack of mindfulness, necessarily determine the condition of shocked surprise when it happens?) suddenly that group under attack, in however focused and localized a way, is reminded of the difference between true neutrality and dormant hate. With sufficient empathy, anyone among us, especially those who can discern some substantive and differentiable marker in their biological being that, under the malevolent scrutiny of an authority would define them as some alien “other,” will, like those once again active targets, realize their status as prospective prey – simply for being who they are. Of course, if the bigotry is overt, there is no mistaking it for disinterest.

But even in America, the friendliest of nations, how often is prejudice left wholly unmasked? How often is what at bottom can only be called hatred made naked, actively so, for anyone to see?

I’m not saying that the alarm and dismay, the sadness and grief, the unremitting emotional anguish of hearing of and seeing the victims of violence borne out of hate is inappropriate or serves no purpose. I am simply reminding all of us of the virtues of being mindful, if not consciously in a state of vigilance. I mean, whatever the level and degree of guardedness we exercise – and it should always be within the bounds of reason – complacency that is the yield of a false sense of security is likely not a rational way of carrying oneself through a world, and everywhere within it, that every day provides savage testament to the still untamed facets of human nature. There simply is no utterly safe enclave anywhere.

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Human Error

Approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes

Designers in silico (link to an essay on the OUP blog)

Having just undergone the relatively unpleasant, but fortunately rare, experience of having a shipped package from a reseller (in short, merchandise paid for by me) go astray, I am particularly sensitive to the matter of imperfect heuristics in the most banal of interactions. My concerns are amplified personally, because at one time in my career my income derived in part from having in my designer repertoire of skills the need to design and, unfortunately, implement user interfaces on computer screens.

In the case of my package gone astray, the Fedex Ground delivery route driver (I did encounter him the same day, because he managed to deliver the second package from the same reseller accurately) seemed harried and confused. It’s not surprising. These folks are required to deliver the day’s assignment of parcels before being able to quit. They have to account for every package, get signatures for those cartons and parcel requiring it, scan every single item delivered as to time and date of leaving it at its destination. And of course, all of this must be done accurately, that is, trying to ensure that the package goes not only to the right address, but the correct recipient.

All of this must be done, moreover, under the unique constraint of the carrier (and all of them are alike in this regard, but especially the major ones, because they carry the bulk of the freight and their logistics are particularly dicey as they have all those individual residential addresses to which they must deliver) being required to deliver within a certain promised window and, if the purchase cost threshold is exceeded according to tariffs and fees that have been negotiated to the fraction of a cent, they must do so at a contracted rate, with razor thin margins. In the case of sales over a stated amount (anywhere from $25 to hundreds of dollars) the reseller is picking up the cost, and the services are very competitive, but especially so these days as the U.S. Postal Service, in its struggle to reach profitable operations (at the mercy of a refractory congress, which otherwise takes up the slack of the cost of operations), is now carrying a lot of the water for the other two major national delivery services, FedEx and UPS. The most costly part of any route is the proverbial “last mile,” which is the figurative representative distance between the last rational distribution point and a recipient’s address.

In the case of my errant delivery, the package did require a signature. And the last mile, like all the preceding miles of transport, was being covered by FedEx Ground. The driver obtained a signature. Unfortunately it was the signature of whoever answered the doorbell or knock of the guy when he brought the package to the door of the wrong address, somewhere in my neighborhood (but now, four days later, I am as much in the dark as to where it went as any other ordinary shmoe just waiting for his purchase). The signature, according to the tracking data I am allowed to see as the addressee, was by someone named, apparently, Sshishaanna. If you know this person, please let them know I’m still waiting for the package they took out of the sweating hands of the FedEx route guy.

You’d think anyone accepting a package would, among other things, first check to see where it was coming from, especially if you weren’t necessarily expecting a delivery, and two, to check to see who in the household it is to whom it’s addressed. But no, we, in our general mindlessness, apparently just sign, scribbling whatever indecipherable nonsense appears on the crude screen of the tracking device the route driver hands you along with the plastic stylus that doesn’t seem to register half the time anyway. It used to be you signed and that ended it, but these days – and let me guess, could it be because more and more packages go astray and more and more efforts to trace the package fail because the signature is indecipherable, for starters? – if the driver can’t make out what you wrote, they ask for the spelling of the name you wrote. I’ll also guess it probably took more time for him to type in “Sshishaanna” than he took to read the label before ringing the bell.

I could suggest some things that, germane to the topic of this essay about how to make interfaces not only more friendly and efficient, but more accurate in the everyday contexts of costly logistics as the last step in the process of getting merchandise into the hands of the paying consumer. And this is true especially in these days of more and more retail trade being conducted on the internet, and with a lag (as small now as two or three hours, given Amazon’s intrepid advance to abbreviate the wait for your precious consumer goods) before what you’ve purchased is in your anxious little mitts. Why doesn’t that tracking gizmo that the driver hands you for your signature show in a conspicuous way the name and address of the recipient in clear and readable text with the caveat that you are about to sign for a package shipped to this individual and to please make sure it’s correct? That’s just for starters.

I don’t know how you train route drivers cost-effectively so that you reduce the kinds of imbecilic errors they perform routinely. And which even mistakes that result in sanctions they feel in their own wallets and purses do not encourage them to behave more mindfully in the performance of their salaried duties. But I do know there is clearly a great deal more to be done with the materials and technology at hand, which is being used anyway, and which would produce more and more accurate results (at greater cost-effectiveness) with the small adjustments that an informed methodology applied to the design of labels, device screens, and the mechanisms, both mechanical and electronic, used to ensure that the participants in a transaction are given the best chance of not screwing up. The untoward consequences in most cases are a small amount of frustration that most adults can shrug off, especially in a day or so. But sometimes the result, as this OUP essay adverts to, can be as disastrous and anxiety provoking on a mass basis as the goof that sent the entire population of Hawaii into a panic because of an alleged nuclear attack. The warning was an error of monstrous proportions in its effects, but tiny in terms of the mechanism deployed to trigger it on the simple assumption that no one who was thinking and paying attention would do absent-mindedly or in error.

The denouement of my package disappearance is that the reseller has to ship me another one, that is, as soon as they get more items in stock, because it’s back-ordered. Popular item you see. Flies off the shelves. Even if the cost is high enough that I get “expedited shipping” for “free.”

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Only Human

Approximate Reading Time: 3 minutes

Harvard Professor Will Retire After Chronicle Investigation Revealed Harassment Allegations

Since I was a boy I’ve wondered at the ability of people to own up, or not, to their failings and mistakes. Somehow I grew to expect that this is what responsible humans did, usually adults, and I understood it was at great personal cost at times, often in terms of humiliation, shame, and what required many more years of maturity and experience on my part to understand was a painful rendering of one’s personal sense of worth and esteem.

What took me considerably longer to understand – my earlier apprehensions about confessing one’s fault and conscious assumption of responsibility having been more of an intuitive perception, subject to the invisible hand of my parents’ moral suasion (if not, in retrospect, as well, in seemingly inconsequential episodes from time to time in my childhood, the more palpable stern upbraiding I took from my mother) – were the ways in which cultural forces have reshaped the methods and the narratives by which we remove ourselves from the forum of social engagement. We never openly admit guilt, and certainly not in some earnest and transparent heartfelt rendering of such feelings, but we take actions that are signals, or perhaps even more formally signifiers of our acknowledgement of that desultory state of conscience that itself signifies dishonor and mortifying embarrassment.

In the current climate of daily broadcasts of the untoward behavior of male authority figures toward their female subordinates – in plain language the constant stream of accusations of sexual harassment, abuse, if not outright violation, which justifiably goes largely unchallenged as to veracity, because there are inevitably multiple victims testifying – the inevitable response, the usual one, the one that seems almost autonomic in its spontaneity and lack of reflection, is denial of all charges. Inevitably the miscreant attests to his utter lack of such debased character as to behave in a matter contradictory to his innate respect and support of women and his lifelong championship of feminist causes, in spirit, if not in name. Given the preponderance of evidence that is all but sanctioned by the gravity of the charges even in the absence of formal testamentary oath-taking by the victims, there is a farcical quality to the defense offered by the offender. It would, indeed, be funny, if the circumstances and the repercussions of the prior acts did not redound so disastrously on the victims, while perpetrators too often retain their powerful tenure.

In the fullness of time, there are never worse repercussions, despite allegedly exhaustive inquiries and what is lamely often put under the rubric, as it is here, of “full and fair process of review.” Severe penalties are defined. If they are ever imposed, they seem never to hit the headlines with the same force as the original exposure, which usually is the culmination of years, if not decades, as in this case, of abuse and concealment (if not outright contemporaneous dismissal or minimalization, in those rare instances that victims brave the virtual institutional skepticism of accusations made at the time of the violation). As the promised new order of better vigilance and active fostering of an atmosphere and environment of safety and protection of the interests of vulnerable populations, but especially women who remain largely in positions of subordination and powerlessness, has yet to be established, the question remains about how seriously society is willing to punish, never mind speak of the remote potentiality of reform and rehabilitation, and vilify offenders in such a way that the prospect of the depth and extent of humiliation once publicly exposed will be sufficient to deter the behavior that occasions it.

Digiprove sealCopyright  © 2018 Howard Dinin

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Some Things I Can’t Reconcile in Today’s News

Approximate Reading Time: 2 minutes

Doesn’t “compute:” The apparent perception that the shutdown of government is either a viable political tactic or, more importantly, part of some larger political strategy – especially by the party not in power in any sane and predictable course toward overturning the present ratio of power in an election ten months hence. The plight of the Dreamers is now going on 20 years. The crippling of liberal, never mind progressive, objectives is an ongoing current crisis, in which the left continues to be at a disadvantage.

Makes no sense: The expectation that officeholders, especially congressional Democrats with seats in peril in the next national election, should vote along ideological lines for positions they know do not square with their constituencies. And that they should do so at peril of being challenged for those seats by more hardline partisans of progressive principles in a primary. If I were an incumbent trying to reconcile a successful campaign strategy for reelection with my own sense of adherence to principles, I’d say to challengers, bring it on. Either one argument will win the nomination or the other will – presumably the incumbent knows more about holding onto the seat. When did the electoral process get subverted with a preference for brinksmanship in legislative standoffs?

The New York Times today reports this:

“The grass-roots are rightly furious with a slew of elected Democrats,” said Ben Wikler, the Washington director of MoveOn.org. “In the Obama years, Republicans learned to be more afraid of primary challenges than general elections. But Democrats are still operating as though the Tea Party is more powerful than The Resistance.”

What I’d like to know is, how did the Times know that “The Resistance” was in upper case capitals? And whatever the case, what exactly is “the resistance?” To what? Who comprises it? How large a percentage of the electorate is it? This sounds discouragingly like propagandistic rhetoric of the left. MoveOn has a not too unblemished history of its own.

from today’s NYTimes:
Senate Democrats’ Vote to End Shutdown Infuriates Some on the Left

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/22/us/politics/liberal-activists-democrats-betrayal-shutdown.html

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