Monday, April 26, 2010

The Lint King

Larry King is a marvel.  Gloriously out of touch, this wrinkly, womanizing recovering gambling addict has built a fairly successful career on little more than chutzpah, relentless references to his Brooklyn childhood, and a steadfast refusal to go away.

For years, he had a column in USA Today.  It was the least literate segment in the least literate paper ever printed, a stream-of-consciousness ramble, idle thoughts separated by ellipses, allusions to faded pop stars, ridiculous predictions, touts of altogether unworthy D-listers, mini book and movie reviews, and commentary on sports and current events, strung together like some weird wampum belt:  "Call me nuts, but Angie Dickinson has the greatest gams in Hollywood...For my money, Bronson Pinchot is America's greatest living actor...that Dalai Lama is a sweetheart of a man...the missus and I caught a sneak preview of "The Tooth Fairy" last night, and trust me, the Oscar buzz around Duane "The Rock" Johnson is the real deal...Call me nuts, but that Donovan McNabb is a sweetheart of man, and he has the greatest gams in the NFL."

He managed to parlay this stuff into an enviable career: Larry King's byline ran on the pages of USA Today for something like 20 years.

I imagine the creative process went something like this:  Larry reclines in his enormous marble bathtub, a cold compress pressed down across his eyes, one hand pushing against his forehead, the fingers of the other absently tracing through the fine, grey down blanketing his ancient, sunken chest.  An enormous Great Dane sleeps tubside.  A Filipino houseboy, his black shoes brilliantly shined, his white linen housecoat perfectly pressed, stands at attention, a tray of martinis in hand.  Perched on the edge of the toilet, nervous, desperately trying to avoid laying eyes on the wizened figure floating in the water, a young stenographer sits, pen and pad at the ready.  She's new, fresh out of secretarial college: Larry changes stenos with the frequency that lesser men change their socks.

The Great One speaks.  The stenographer puts pen to paper, her hand ever so slightly trembling.  The houseboy stares into the middle distance; he's thinking of Manilla.  "Call me whacko, but there is nothing more satisfying than creamed corn on toast.  ELLIPSES!"  The dog lifts his giant head, momentarily stirred by his master's outburst, then settles back to sleep.  "I don't know about you, but I miss Perry Como.  ELLIPSES!  What ever happened to David Cassidy?  That kid is brimming with talent.  ELLIPSES!  For my money, you can't go wrong with bagels for breakfast.  ELLIPSES!  The Yankees look good this year, but not as good as Jackie Robinson when he played for my Brooklyn Dodgers.  ELLIPSES!  OK, sweetheart, that's enough for today.  Type that up, and fax it to my editor.  Ernesto, where's my drink?"

For twenty years, he did this.  It is amazing.  And I read it, not often, but often enough.  It was awful, but endearingly awful, hypnotically awful, memorably awful.  If my mind works like a lint trap, than Larry is the Lint King, constantly, relentlessly pulling in the great clouds of detritus, the numberless names of hangers-on and has-beens, the never-weres and never-will bes, perpetually being churned out by popular culture.  Larry caught them all, caught them so that we wouldn't have to.

Somewhere deep inside, I fear that I'm a little like him, happily, no, GLEEFULLY self-absorbed and checked out. It's always bothered me that Gordon Hinckley publicly named Larry King as one of his close personal friends, one of those wince-inducing moments where you wish you could have pulled him aside and said, "Um, this is a really bad idea -- I beg you, please don't do this," like when President Bush stood under that "Mission Accomplished" banner, or when the girl from "Precious" agreed to host "Saturday Night Live".  But maybe President Hinckley knew what he was doing.  Lint traps need love, too.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Cleaning the Lint Trap

Hello, it's me.

Yes, that's a shameless reference to a Todd Rundgren song.  I am accepting that my daughter is right, I am a hipster crybaby, a living, breathing Nick Hornby character, sans the substance abuse, and the promiscuity, and the agnosticism.  I'm a Nick Hornby character in that I am constantly making lists, and I am somewhat hamstrung by underachievement, and I have an encyclopedic knowledge (with accompanying snobbiness) of inconsequential things, and the women in the story -- my wife and daughter, mainly -- are infinitely wiser and more interesting than I am.

You may recall that I am a human lint trap: stuff blows through my brain.  Some of it gets caught.  Well, thanks to the geniuses at Iolo System Technologies, whose wonderful anti-virus program recognized and partially deleted the Windows 7 operating system of my brand-new computer, forcing me to spend approximately 40 hours this week trying to put it all right again, I have not had much time to empty the ol' lint trap by writing.

I have become quite friendly with the staff at Dell Customer support; did you know that Dell charges for customer support?  Yes, if you don't buy the software support package at the beginning, you pay big bucks when there's a problem.  In my case, I've spent $229 this week, mainly for the privilege of hearing a faraway voice say, "I am sorry you are having problems with that sir."  On the plus side, Indian support people are, in my experience, throwing off the shackles of paternalism, and ditching the phony Western handles in favor of their true names.  I was helped by a Rajneesh (actually, he was pretty useless), and a Tavleen, and a Shawn.  OK, there is still a little work to be done.

I used to think this whole buying your "custom built" computer online was cutting edge and savvy.  Now it's just a pain.  Next time, I'll get a Toshiba at Fry's.  At least then I'll have a brick and mortar target for my rage when the thing crashes.  And if you believe you're being thrifty by declining the software protection fee, guess again.  Think of yourself as an 85 year old oil billionaire, and your new computer as Anna Nicole Smith, and the protection plan as your prenuptial agreement: you may think you're in love, but this shiny seductive thing is Trouble, and will soon break your heart and clean out your bank account.  Gird your loins, sir!  Gird your loins!

So I haven't been writing, and the lint trap is full.  Allow me to unburden:

1. A kid in my Primary class, a visitor, requested that I draw her "a car and some human beings."  Not "a mommy and a daddy" or "my brother and sister" or even "a couple of people": "Human beings."  Clearly, she is a Space Alien.

2. This week was the NFL Draft, and once again, I am reminded of how much I hate pro football.  It's a leaden, boring, stupidly violent game.  And this has nothing to do with my two traumatic seasons as a third string offensive lineman on the Swiston's Beef & Keg Broncos.  Well, not much, at least.  

I love sports.  I love baseball.  I love hockey.  Ken Dryden is one of my heroes.  I love the beauty and energy and creativity of soccer.  I even like Australian Rules Football, that strange, ungainly platypus of a sport.  I could watch Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith argue about basketball for hours.  I even sort of like college football.  But the NFL? No thanks.  The players, all helmeted and Kevlared and festooned with Nike logos, are little more than slow moving stock cars, NASCAR in cleats.  The uniforms have been reduced to spandex sheaths, and while that may work for wide receivers, looking at 400 pound interior linemen in form-fitting outfits is a little nauseating.  Most of them look like poorly stuffed bratwurst.  Then there are the drunken fans, the cheerleaders -- all of whom appear to have been recruited from second tier "gentlemen's clubs" near Houston Intercontinental Airport -- and the undeniable boredom of the game.  George Will is right; it's the worst of America, periodic spasms of violence, followed immediately by committee meetings.  

So I made a list of things I like more than football:

Australian Rules Football
Hurling (the sport, not the euphemism for vomiting)
That weird Irish game where sometimes you kick the ball, and sometimes you run with it
Walking the dogs
Hurling (the euphemism for vomiting, not the sport)
Glenn Beck

3. Certain places are meant for worship and instruction, not entertainment.  You don't step into a sacred place to be entertained; you go there to leave the world for a moment, to draw closer to God, to restore your world-weary soul.  Shame on people who think that religion's primary job is to keep us entertained.  On the other hand, you would think, given our resources and the importance of the message,  we'd be able to do better than a Heaven that looks suspiciously like a poorly crafted student remake of "Clash of the Titans", and an Eden that reminds me of the cover of "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"; that, or the set for a particularly insane Bollywood musical.  And I won't even mention the guy with the Sideshow Mel voice...

Enough said about that.

4. I moved the furniture around in my office, and discovered...Rodent Droppings.  Being ill-versed in the ways of my rodent brethren, I have no idea whether they were left by a big mouse, or a little rat.  Suffice to say they were rather large dropping.  And plentiful.  How plentiful?  Imagine the rodents as travelers on Interstate 10, and my office as the only rest stop between Kerrville and Fort Stockton.  So, yes, it was a bumper crop.

What do you do in a situation like this?  You employ Hessians.  I have added two small cats to the office staff.  Their only job is to Guard Against Vermin.

So far, they have eaten a lot, and pooped a lot (they are mercifully litterbox proficient, so rather than cleaning up dozens of little disasters, I get to haul away one great, putrid mess at a time), and decided that my chair is their exclusive territory.  I get up, they occupy, like Stanford students commandeering the Dean's office.  I shoo, and they Plot Revenge.  They are cunning, these kitties.  They wait until the phone rings, then, as I answer it, they pounce, one attacking the left flank, the other the right, sinking their tiny claws deep into my lower back.  At first, I assumed it was simple cat petulance.  By week's end, I was convinced that they were trying to harvest my kidneys for sale on the black market.  This is my rule:  Never underestimate a cat.

It's late, and I am tired, and there are still a few missing drivers to track down, so Adieu, brethren, adieu...

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Fear and Loathing in My Inbox

I have purchased a new computer.  Dude, it's a Dell: much like Isaiah's dog, I have a tendency to return to my vomit.

That's not fair.  I have owned three Dell laptops, counting this one, and they have been reliable, at least as reliable as computers are capable of being.  (This is a good time to revist what I consider my crowning intellectual achievement, McMurray's Law of Technological Homeostasis, which states that for every minute of time saved by some electronic device, the user loses a minute, rebooting, reinstalling, resetting, or talking to Pam in technical support.)  

Computer people lie.  They lie so much.  Even Steve Jobs, that coffee sipping fake beatnik (fauxnik?).  We have an iMac.  It did not Change Our Lives Forever; it just made it marginally more convenient to view You Tube footage of monkeys sniffing their poopy fingers.  

And don't get me started on the Captain Nerdmerica up in Washington state.  Window 7 is indeed fast, easy, and convenient, assuming this is your first computer, and you don't have hundreds of dollars invested in software, and thousands of hours invested in files that are languishing on an old unit.  Spare me your talk of transfer cables: I followed the setup steps to the letter, and all I get is a message on the old computer, informing me that "you have logged in on a temporary profile.  Restart your computer and try again." Over and OVer and OVEr and OVER and OVER. Now I am noticing that my iTunes files are acting strangely: For some reason, British comedian Sandy Toksvig's photo has replaced the icon for "Raging Waters", a documentary on Niagara Falls, and my copy of Al Stewart's "Down in the Cellar" has broken up into four sections, like a sad, musical Yugoslavia.   

So I am in a sour mood, a mood made worse by Paul Scholes's stoppage time goal in today's Manchester Derby (you hold one of the best teams in the world for ninety two minutes and forty three seconds, and you lose on a header.  It makes me sick.  Scholes seems like a decent guy, though, despite playing for The Devil).

Then there was the email.  It came from someone named "Clyde McMurray", a person I do not know.  It contained a single sentence, written in 24 point boldface Courier:

Death is a Separation.

I've grown used to the cryptic comments from Asian "friendship" websites ("nice job! waiting for your new artical!" "great minds thing alike!"  "you say so, jack!"), but this unnerved me.  What is yon Clyde saying?  Is it a warning?  Some sort of code?  A threat, perhaps?  Have I stumbled unwitting into a vast international conspiracy?  Does somebody other than my little brother hate this blog?  is somebody other than my little brother reading this blog?

It gives one pause. 

Thursday, April 15, 2010

A Small Slice of Grace

I did a dumb thing the other day.  No surprise there; I am frequently careening from error in judgment to error in judgment, smooth and round and relentless, like a big pink pinball.  This was, even for me, an exceptional moment in dumbness.

My car was in the shop, awaiting pickup.  The mechanic is not quite two miles from my office.  Thinking the walk would Do Me Good, I declined a coworker's offer of a ride, and set off on foot, toting my laptop and a bulging LL Bean canvas briefcase so that I wouldn't have to double back to the office after picking up my car.  The bags weighed at least twenty pounds between them; I looked like a Sherpa in short pants.

About a half mile from the office, I realized that my briefcase had come partially unzipped, and items -- my GPS device, a bank envelope containing cash and my driver's license, my iPod headphones -- were tumbling into the weeds on the shoulder of the Beltway 8 feeder road.  I dropped to my knees and gathered up my belongings, cars and trucks whizzing past at NASCAR speed.

"Well, that was a close call," I thought, and continued my trek to the automotive center.

The next morning, while brushing my teeth, my heart raced and my hands went clammy with the realization that there had been three Blockbuster DVD rentals in my bag, and they weren't there anymore.  "You probably left them on your desk," my wife reassured me.

I hadn't.  They were gone, three rented DVDs, lost somewhere in the wilds of Pasadena.  I called Blockbuster and explained the situation.  I would have to pay for them, of course, to the tune of something like sixty dollars.

The expense is bad, but the embarrassment is worse, the admission that at 47 I am still not completely trustworthy with a simple assignment like returning a couple of movies to the video store.  It is a good thing we live in a warm climate: I do not know if I could endure the necessary humiliation of having my wife pin my mittens to my jacket.

I retraced my steps.  Nothing.  Then I did something that I almost felt foolish doing.  I prayed.  I prayed for help in finding lost DVDs.  That seems a silly thing, even for a believer: planes are falling out of the sky in Russia; earthquakes and volcanoes imperil lives and rend the planet; wars and rumors of wars fill the earth.  And in the middle of the tumult, I approach His celestial throne, with my request for assistance in finding a lost copy of "Sherlock Holmes".  

Silly.  But I did it.

And within a couple of seconds, I got this feeling: "Go down the street and ask the guys at the "Inspector Quick" car service.  They know something."  I went down the street, and the man I talked to looked at me like I had marmosets crawling out of my ears, but one of his co-workers overheard us, and he told me that he had seen some guys in a City of Pasadena work truck pick up something that might have been DVD cases that morning, right in front of their shop.

Well, that was it.  The DVDs were in the Pasadena landfill.  Then I heard the voice again, "Drive over to the Department of Sanitation.  Ask them."  I did it.  And the man on duty looked at me like I had marmosets crawling out of my ears, but he took my phone number and said he'd ask around and call me.

He never called.  I got up this morning, resigned to having to pay Blockbuster for the lost videos.  

As my wife and I offered a prayer, the voice once more popped into my head: "Offer thanks for the inspiration you've received.  Be grateful, even though you didn't find what you were looking for.  Then call the Department of Sanitation."  I did as I was bidden, offering thanks for the inspiration.  On my way to work, I called the sanitation people.

"Oh, yeah," the man said.  "I remember you.  Say, what were the titles of those movies?"  I told him.  He replied, "I was just testing you.  You passed.  They're right here, on my desk.  Come down and pick them up."

God isn't a genie.  He isn't our Celestial Butler, or our Divine Detective, or our Omnipotent Valet.  He is our Father.  And He is there.  I am very quick to doubt that, to convince myself that He is far away, and I am too small, too weak, too venial to merit His attention or His love.  In this moment of carelessness, this loss of something trivial, He chose to lead me, guide me, and walk beside me.  He chose to tell me, with perfect gentleness, "I am not too busy for you."  (The scary part, of course, is that these insights do not come cheaply.  I am now under a greater obligation to serve, to show compassion, to love, for I have felt, in the answers to this silly little request, enveloped by Love.)

The miracle is that He is there for all of us, with the same love, with the same attentiveness, if we would only humble ourselves and listen.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Sporting News

I almost entitled this one "Tribute to Thad", since we seem to have a ridiculous number of photos of Thad in sporting action.

And away we go!

 This photo was taken on the banks of the Erie Canal, probably, given the Yankees cap and t-shirt, in 1976, the year of my Yankees infatuation.  I am wearing grey flannel baseball pants, salvaged from one of my dad's old uniforms.  The shoes?  Buddy's, the only athletic footwear manufactured in Poland, and proudly sold at G.C. Murphy's on Webster (also home of Big Murph Jeans.   Big Murphs were at the bottom of the jeans totem.  Cool kids wore Levis; Nerds wore Wranglers; Little kids wore Toughskins from one of those mall stores.  Weird kids wore Big Murphs.  I was a Big Murph man.)  Notice there is no actual sport being played here, which sums up my athletic career.

Uncle Pete.  When he was a teenager, Pete turned the attic of his parent's home into a bedroom/Fortress of Solitude.  There were no walls; the room was shaped like a giant triangle, the roof's underside forming an enormous, sloping ceiling.  Peter had plastered those sloping ceilings with hundreds of beautiful, full-color photos, pulled from the pages of SPORT magazine and Sports Illustrated.  I discovered the room years later.  It was like laying eyes on King Tut's Tomb, or Shangri-La.  Everything I know about decorating, I learned from Uncle Peter...

 Thad, in a classic three-point stance.  Taken in the back yard of the white house on Sweeney.

Me, in my three-point stance.  This is 1971.  I wear the uniform of the Swiston's Beef & Keg Broncos, proud member of The Tonawandas Football Clinic.  That's the Erie Canal in the background.  I hated playing football, suffering through two years on the Broncos squad.  My first year, one of the coaches, a beefy guy who claimed collegiate football experience, got into my face and screamed, "McMURRAY!  YEW RUN LIKE A WOUNDED WATER BUFFALO!"  This was, I realize in retrospect, designed to Motive Me, so that I might achieve Excellence.  At the time, it just made me want to curl up and eat a dozen Boston creme doughnuts (which I did, on more than one occasion.  This led to the inevitable Struggle to Make Playing Weight, humiliating Saturday mornings in the TFC trainer's office, stripped to my stirrups and athletic girdle, stepping on a medical scale while half a dozen men with whistles around their necks peered at the slowly bobbing weight indicator.  And every week, Coach would pull the men over to a corner of the room, and say something like, "Look, fellas, it ain't like he's gonna actually play," and they'd turn to me, all pink and soft and stooped in my humiliation, and soberly nod their heads in agreement.  Football for me was just the thing you endured in order to get a free hot chocolate from the concession stand when it was over.  My last year of organized football, 1972, was better.  Coach Marciello was a sweet, kind man, whose art major daughter stenciled impossibly cool charging broncos on our helmets, just like the ones on the Calgary Stampeders helmets.  She even used a metallic paint, so headgear sparkled in the sun.  True, our team colors were maroon and yellow, and for some reason the helmets turned out pink, but they were cool nonetheless.  At least once a week, Coach Marciello would pull me out of the agony of scrimmage or calisthenics or blocking drills, hand me a five dollar bill, and say, "Son, how about you go over to the corner store and buy me a carton of Marlboros?"  This was New York in the Seventies: nobody at the corner store thought twice about selling a carton of smokes to an eleven-year-old.  They probably would have thrown in a six pack of Genny Cream Ale if I had asked them.) 

Ah, the Opening Day Parade!  A moment of hope, pride, excitement.  It's kind of thrilling, marching down the middle of the street, people on the sidewalks clapping and cheering for you.  The top photos are Thad's TFC parade (note that somehow, Mitch, in plainclothes, has insinuated himself into the team.  That Mitch, he is a gadfly!)  The lower photo shows Thad in a North Tonawanda National Little League parade.  There were three divisions in the NTNLL: The majors, for 12 year olds; the minors, for 10 and 11 year olds; and Pee-Wees, for 8 and 9 year olds.  Thad is on the Elms, which was the Pee-Wee affiliate of the Oaks, which was the farm team for the Major's Dodgers.  All of the Majors teams were named after actual major league baseball clubs.  All of the Minors teams -- Oaks, Mounties, Raniers, Solons and a bunch I can't remember -- were named after old Pacific Coast League clubs.  The Pee Wee teams were evidently named after a night of heavy drinking.  Elms and Oaks, OK, that sort of makes sense.  But I played my Pee Wee games for the Fins.  The Fins?  We weren't named after a fish; we were named after a piece of a fish.

Baseball in the ol' backyard.  Home plate was the stump of a dead apple tree.  There is a lot to see here: you have the beautiful pear tree (North Tonawanda was once the home to massive pear orchards), and further back, the wild cherry tree whose sour fruit was so prized by Gand-Pa.  The brown house belonged to The Bee Man, so called because he kept several hives, selling the honey to the neighbors.  This must be mid to late summer, because the Bee Man's corn is thriving.  Thad and Mitch are wielding mini-bats, no doubt souvenirs from our trip to Cooperstown.  I will reserve comment on Thad's wild and crazy guy pants.

Thad, on a bike, probably in the Spring of 1973.  It's a Schwinn.  Note the training wheels.

Todd, probably 1978 or 1979.  He was in the Majors!

The TFC field.  I am guessing that this is 1979 or 1980.  Cold, muddy, wet: perfect football weather.  And who's on the bench, enjoying a refreshing drink from the players' water bottle?  The ubiquitous Mitch, of course!

 Mitch, enjoying the family pool, circa 1975.  A few years down the line, Mitch probably did some swimming in the Canal, something I was too afraid to try.  Leeches...

A strange quartet of photos.  Note the football photos: I am fully outfitted in helmet, jersey, and football pants.  I may not be the best player -- OK, I am far from the best player -- but my uniform is always meticulous.  As for the junior NRA photo, I have no explanation.  Clearly, it's Christmas.  Despite the Daniel Boone shirt, this is no old timey weapon: it has a scope!  What was I planning?  What fevered plot percolated in my tiny brain?  Thank goodness there were no clock towers in North Tonawanda.  And what was the "Special  Report" on the teevee?  We will never know...  The last photo disturbs me.  It's Sixth Avenue, probably in Spring 1964.  I am wearing a chinstrapped helmet.  Why?  Did I sustain a childhood brain injury?  Was polo an important part of my forgotten past?  Even then, in my illiterate toddlerhood, did my parents know, instinctively and intuitively, that I, um, Liked To Wear Uniforms?  Again, it is a mystery.

We close with three photos of Thad:

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

There is nothing political in this one. I promise.

There is a moment in Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" where it seems like everything is about to come undone. 

You know the song,  especially if you come from the Rust Belt.  There's Springsteen and Miami Steve on guitars, of course, Steve's rhythm line chugging like a 1968 Camaro. Gary Tallent pounds out this river of fat, deep bass notes, while Ernest "Boom" Carter keeps pace on drums. David Sancious gives his grand piano everything it can handle, staccato riffs urgent and insistent, while above it all floats Danny Federici's strange and wonderful glockenspiel, which should sound out of place, but somehow fits perfectly.

Springsteen's voice is raw, not quite cracking, singing like his soul depends on it.  "I wanna die with you, Wendy, on the streets tonight, in an everlasting kiss," he pleads, and behind him, you hear the band, shaking and sliding like an out of control muscle car.  You steel yourself for impact, fully expecting the whole thing to crash in a hail of blood and glass and Clarence Clemmon's splintered saxophone reed, when, from somewhere way in back, Springsteen counts down, "One, two, three, four," and somehow, it rights itself, it comes around stronger, faster, even more powerful than before.  It's a beautiful moment, a miracle that the tapes were rolling when this explosion of creative spontaneity occurred.


Except it wasn't a live take.

Don't it me wrong: it's great, maybe the greatest rock and roll song ever.  No matter the hit and miss quality of the last twenty years, Bruce Springsteen between 1973 and 1982 was at the height of his powers, and this may well be his crowning achievement.  But "Born to Run" wasn't a one-off, one-take, live performance masterpiece, despite what it sounds like.  Springsteen and his engineers, producers and fellow musicians worked for months on that song.  There were hundreds of takes, dozens of versions.  At one point, the chorus -- "Tramps like us, baby we were born to run" -- was sung by an all Black gospel choir.  Briefly, an overdub track featured streetcar bells.  Springsteen calls the song "My shot at the title," and he spared no effort, no expense (for studio time is ridiculously expesive, and the record company was less than pleased with the song's swollen budget) to make it perfect.

That doesn't ruin the song for me.  It enhances it.  

Everything great takes time, and effort, and thought.  F. Scott Fitzgerald was fond of telling people that his masterwork The Great Gatsby was completed in one draft.  That was a lie.  Sometime after his death, family members found a trunk, filled with earlier drafts of the work, more than a dozen of them, each one secret evidence of the artist's care in crafting his finished product.  Frederick Law Olmstead, the father of landscape architecture and the creator of Central Park, agonized over the placement of every tree, every rock in his designs.  His goal was to craft something that looked natural, uncrafted, a place where even the bridges, walkways and buildings would be so carefully placed, so integrated into their surrounds that they appear to have simply sprung up, like wildflowers.  

Even Claude Monet's famous "Waterlilies" paintings are staged.  Monet did indeed have a garden pond, and waterlilies did indeed grow there, and he did indeed paint them.  He did not simply wake up, throw on a smock and grab and easel, and traipse over to the ol' fishin' hole.  Monet employed gardeners, who carefully tended the pond.  Dead lilies were removed.  Plants were pruned, moved, adjusted, to enhance the aesthetic beauty of the scene.  Every single petal was there by design, the whole thing carefully staged.  It was a contrivance, but one that led to some of the greatest art of the expressionist era.

My friend Joel is a barbecue maven, a careful student of the fine art of smoking meat.  He frequently tells me that there's nothing fast about slow-smoking: rush the process, and you end up with a mess.  It takes time, Joel says.  You have to be patient.

Time, care, thoughtfulness.  Patience with the process.  Patience with ourselves.  Whatever we choose to do --  creating great music or literature, painting waterlilies, building parks, cooking brisket, or becoming even as He is -- we have to be patient.  We have to be willing to work, to hone, to fail, and then try again.  

We are children of God, not bags of microwave popcorn.  We aren't finished in two minutes.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Why Woodrow Wilson Needs a Swirly

In his History of the American People, published in 1901, Wilson decried the mass influx of southern and eastern Europeans.  Between 1880 and 1890, the U.S. population increased by 12 million people, evidence, writes Wilson, that the nation was being overwhelmed by unwelcome, unproductive foreigners.  The huddled masses from Italy and Galicia and Hungary and the untold masses of Russian Jews were simply too much to bear.  America was choking on excess immigration.

In fact, between 1820 and 1870, years when immigrants were mostly from western Europe, the US population grew from 9.6 million to 38 million, an increase of about 295 per cent.  From 1870 to 1920, considered the peak period of southern and eastern European immigration to America, US population rose from 38 million to 106 million, an increase of 179 per cent.  Couple this with physical expansion of the United States during the 19th century -- eleven of the fifty states were admitted to the Union between 1876 and 1912, representing an addition of 1,411,041 square miles of land, an area larger than France, Spain, Germany, the United Kingdom, Greece and present-day Poland combined -- and not only did US population growth actually slow during these years, but the available land dramatically increased.  There was more than enough space to hold the newcomers.

Wilson's complaint wasn't just the numbers of immigrants arriving on American soil; it was where they came from.  In the early part of the 19th century,  Wilson wrote, "men of sturdy stocks of the north of Europe had made up the main strain of foreign blood which was every year added to the vital working force of the country...."  These new immigrants were something else altogether, "multitudes of men of the lowest class from the south of Italy and men of the meaner sort out of Hungary and Poland," possessing “neither skill nor energy nor any initiative of quick intelligence.”  Europe was turning the United States into a dumping ground for their halt, their lame, their imbecilic, Wilson added, and they came in such numbers that it seemed the countries of the south and east of Europe “were disburdening themselves of the more sordid and hapless elements of their population.”

Wilson later apologized for these remarks, when it became clear that he could not win the US presidency without the support of Polish and Hungarian voters.  

There are three mind-boggling aspects to this story.  First, it subtly teaches us the dangers of relying on the wisdom of the day.  Wilson, the former president of Princeton University, was a learned man, and the learned men of the day embraced eugenics as a valid and enlightened way of understanding human behavior.  Some strains of humanity were simply weaker, lazier, less trustworthy, than others.  The only way to correct the weakness, was to prevent those weak strains from reproducing.  Thirty years after Wilson's history was published, Adolf Hitler used those same notions to provide a pseudo-scientific rationale for his policy of race purity.  We have an obligation to learn, to expand our knowledge, but to rely solely on our own understanding, on the wisdom of the day, is a perilous excursion:  Today's geniuses are tomorrow's crackpots.

Second, it teaches us much about the great ignorance, and the great amnesia that marks political discourse.  Wilson never formally repudiated these beliefs.  Though he did offer an apology to Polish and Hungarian voters groups, and he did agree to veto a Congressional act requiring a literacy test at Ellis Island, the closest he ever came to correcting his contentions was to say something like, "The Eastern and Southern Europeans proved to have strong backs and a willingness to work hard, menial jobs, thus helping to build this country."  Just in my family, those Slav workhorses begat progeny that includes three attorneys, a theatre owner, a small businessman, a college instructor, a school teacher, a nationally recognized composer, the chairman of a college English department, several people in the medical professions, and by my count, more than 50 individuals with college degrees.  Of course, today, Woodrow Wilson is remembered, if he is remembered at all, not as a classist or a racist, but as a delicate flower, a thoughtful and sickly fellow, feebly waving his Fourteen Points at Versailles, urging the great heads of Europe to just get along, pleading for a League of Nations.  There is no one, no matter how egregious his crimes or outrageous his sentiments, who won't, with time, not enjoy full expiation by the American people.  Except O.J.

Third, Wilson's comments underscore the viciousness and the depth of separation that marks America.  We are not a melting pot.  We're not even a stew. We're more like one of those Hungry Man Dinners, each constituent part segregated from the others in its own little aluminum trough.  When things mix -- a little gravy ends up on the corn, say, or some of the brownie's sprinkles slip over onto the slab of pressed turkey -- there's the Devil to pay!  Multiculturalism is no problem, I once heard a longtime Houstonian say, unless we have to live together.  Two of my sisters-in-law are Asian.  One of my brothers-in-law is Tongan.  All of them have stories of being shunned, mistreated, and disrespected here in the United States.  A few years ago, my brother, his wife and I were eating in a popular restaurant in upstate New York.  We found a place to sit; the adjoining table was occupied by two men dressed in construction clothes.  They looked at us, shook their heads, got up and walked away, making comments about how "those people" were taking over the world, and wondering why "yellows" were eating in their favorite restaurant.  This happened in 2006.  So much for the New Millennium.

This separatist mindset, so clear in Wilson, is in evidence when Sean Hannity bloviates on immigration, or when Rush Limbaugh smirks at relief efforts in Haiti, or when Keith Olbermann declares someone the Worst Person in the World.  It's destructive, and wrong.

I hope that somewhere in that Great Elsewhere, Piotr Litwin gets to meet Woodrow Wilson.  And I hope Piotr gives him a swirly.  If I ever meet Rush Limbaugh, I promise I will do the same.

Saturday, April 10, 2010


I'm reading a remarkable book, Vincent Cannato's American Passage, a history of Ellis Island, its predecessor, Castle Garden, and the evolution of immigration policy in the United States during the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Cannato is a fine writer, a dogged researcher, and he has put together a compelling narrative.

One of the oldest traditions in American politics is the demonization of immigrants.  I've written about this at great length elsewhere in this blog: first the Irish were hated and mistrusted; then the southern and eastern Europeans were scorned and ostracized; today, we treat the Mexicans and Central Americans like pariahs.  Cannato goes to great lengths to document this sad tradition, spending a considerable amount of time on the work of William Williams, longtime director of Ellis Island, and on the research, conducted during Williams's tenure, of Dr. Henry Goddard, a psychologist.

Williams, a Wall Street attorney of old New England stock, saw it as his duty to keep America free of undesirables.  Ellis Island examiners would bar admission to anyone thought to be likely to end up "a public charge."  The bar to entry was set impossibly high: a skilled tailor with a crippled leg was sent back to Russia, despite his arguments that his deformity did not inhibit his ability to sew a suit of clothes.  Men were denied entry for having "sunken chests" and "dull eyes."  Many Jewish immigrants were turned away, their only crime being that they were "excessively short in stature."  Young French women traveling alone were almost universally assumed to be prostitutes, barred for "suspicion of moral turpitude." One young woman, so shamed and traumatized by the invasive examination frequently administered to young single women to determine their virginity, committed suicide. It was a cruel process.

Williams had good intentions.  It was a difficult job, safeguarding America's border.  Williams confessed that saying "no" was often difficult: it was one thing to espouse a theory of exclusion, it was another, altogether agonizing thing to look into the eyes of a hopeful immigrant, and tell him he must return to his homeland.  And Williams was a product of his time, the full flowering of the Scientific Age, when electricity lit homes and street lamps, and wonders like the telephone, the aeroplane, and the motorcar were bursting into the national consciousness.  When Dr. Goddard proposed to Williams that there was an objective, scientific means of determining fitness for immigration, a foolproof way to make a dispassionate and indisputable assessment of every candidate, the Ellis Island director jumped.

Goddard was a eugenist, convinced that human strengths and weaknesses were solely the result of genetics.  Strong parents begat strong children, weak parents begat weak children, and the more weak people allowed to parent, the more imperiled the nation.  He developed a intelligence test, based on the work of French psychologist Alfred Binet, that was designed to gauge the mental acuity of the immigrants.  To his shock, Goddard found that more than 80 percent of those tested failed.  Goddard even coined a term to describe these feeble-minded masses.  They were "morons," derived from the Greek word meaning "dull."   On the basis of Goddard's tests, thousands of lives were altered, thousands were denied entry to America.

The problem is, the test was deeply flawed.  Immigrants were asked the day of the week and the date.  After days, even weeks of travel, most were tired and disoriented, and had no idea of the day or date.  (It wasn't like steerage on the immigrant ships was equipped with Wi-Fi access.)  They were shown a painting of a little boy, a little girl, and a dead rabbit.  The children were weeping; the rabbit had been their pet, and they were preparing for his burial.  The immigrants were asked to interpret the work.  For most poor Europeans, the notion of a pet was beyond comprehension, and rabbits were raised for food and fur, not companionship.  The painting befuddled them.  Goddard misinterpreted cultural misunderstandings and situational disorientation for lack of intelligence.  Other medical experts at Ellis Island used cranial shape, finger length, posture, and quantity of body hair as justifications for deportation.  One Finnish immigrant, lantern jawed and stubby fingered, was actually held up as a possible descendant of the Missing Link.

Goddard rose to fame with his 1912 book, The Kalikak Family: A Study In The Heredity of Feeble-Mindedness.  Modern researchers dismiss the book as filled with factual errors and false conclusions, but in Goddard's day, it was heralded as proof that allowing the feeble-minded to procreate would only bring more feeble-minded people into the world.  Goddard became a leading advocate for birth control among the poor, to protect the human race from further intellectual dilution.  He also advocated the segregation of the feeble-minded in humane, controlled colonies, to protect them from themselves, and prevent them from commingling with the intellectually healthy.  In 1933, the book received a new printing in Germany, where it was favorably received by Nazi leadership.

To his credit, Goddard repudiated much of his work, arguing by the late 1920s, "It may still be objected that moron parents are likely to have imbecile or idiot children. There is not much evidence that this is the case. The danger is probably negligible," and frequently speaking out against eugenics in general, and the Nazi version of eugenics in particular.

But you can't change history.  

My great grandfather, Piotr Litwin, was less than five feet tall when he arrived at Ellis Island.  On the wrong day, with the wrong inspector, that might have been enough to make him "physically unfit" to enter this country.  Some of my ancestors arrived here illiterate.  That was enough to classify them as "morons," and earn them passage back to Europe.  Somehow, my people got through.  They were the blessed ones, the lucky ones.

It's hard for me, when I think about this, about how close we came to not being Americans, to not being at all, to countenance the lies, the innuendoes, the rancor directed at those coming to America from Mexico and the nations of Central America and the troubled lands of Africa.  Open the borders.  We have work enough to do, room enough to spare.  We are too good to be Goddards, too wise to be Willamses.

Next time, I hurl invective at an American president.  Sorry, all you residents of Greater Glennbeckistan, it ain't the one you're thinking of.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

News From the Lockport Bureau

I just received an e-mail from the intrepid Rick Heenan, my first cousin, once removed.  He's the guy who provided the photo of James Ocean McMurray, dressed in his Royal Horse Artillery dress uniform.

He's sent along some amazing photos.

First, his parents, John and Myrtle McMurray Heenan, on their honeymoon in 1936:

It's just a wonderful, joyful snapshot!  And you can tell that Myrtle is a McMurray -- I can see at least two of my siblings in her features.

Next, it's the eldest McMurray child, Edward, posing with his England-made Ford coupe:
What's not to like?  I love that one of my great uncles was enough of a free spirit that he tooled around the Eastern seaboard in a car sporting a steering wheel mounted on the right side.  Plus, the car is a lovely shade of sky blue, Manchester City's color, and that is never a bad thing. 

The best comes last.  This is Charlotte Squib Hanson.  I don't know much about my great-grandmother: she married in her teens, moved from London to Toronto to Buffalo to North Tonawanda, raising a family along the way.  Her husband died young; she died in her daughter's home, on Linwood Avenue in North Tonawanda, when she was 74.  Her father, James Hanson, was a bookbinder; the family lived in the Islington area of north central London.  Until about half an hour ago, I had never seen a photograph of her.  This image had to have been taken in London, when she was in her early teens:

A quick scan of Mr. Wikipedia's page turned up the following nuggets: Camden Town was the home of the Cratchits in A Christmas Carol; the record shop in Nick Hornby's High Fidelity was set there (N.B. I like Nick Hornby, but the protagonist of High Fidelity is, well, a git.  I like Fever Pitch and A Long Way Down and Juliet, Naked -- which is not about a nude woman named Juliet; it's about what all of Hornby's books are about, love and loss and trivia and music -- a whole lot more).  Today, Camden Town is sort of a hipster/hippie hangout.  Amy Winehouse has mentioned it in a song.  So have The Clash.  MTV's London offices are there.

Take a long look at that photo.  We can identify with politicians and pop stars, divide ourselves and align ourselves and tell us that we are self-actualized, free agents, but the truth is, this is us, this little girl with the solemn eyes and the elegant chapeau, holding the parasol.  We are the young man in the military uniform, too, and the little steely fellow enigmatically clutching the baseball in that old wedding photo.  We're the exhausted kid, sitting in a classroom by day, stocking grocery shelves by night, running like a madman in a Springtime half-mile race.  We're the little Polish lady with the big wig and the stack of crossword puzzle books, and the laughing old man with the fiddle, dispensing scratchy kisses.  Whomever we claim to be, however we choose to separate from one another, we are the sum of all who came before us.

And however we may deny it, that binds us in bonds unbreakable.

Monday, April 5, 2010

A New Way Of Looking At Leaders

Some years ago, sociologist Robert Putnam's book Bowling Alone caused a minor stir.  Putnam observed that by the mid-1990's, the number of Americans identifying themselves as recreational bowlers had reached an all-time high, but the number of people bowling in organized leagues had dropped to record lows.  Bowling alone, argues Putnam, is a metaphor for Balkanized America, each of us pursuing his or her own path, no one willing to be part of a team, to work for a common good.

I don't really want to talk about his conclusions.  Suffice to say that I concur.

(Sort of on this subject, I had my first encounter with Reform Mormonism this week.  Sheesh!  Talk about depressing.  They reject organized religion in general and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in particular; they deny that ANY scripture is anything more than interesting writing; they assert that Priesthood authority is non-existent and the notion of a Final Judgment foolishness;  they reject the ordinances of the Temple and deny the necessity of performing those ordinances on behalf of the dead; and they claim that the only proper place for worship is at home, with your own family.  On the other hand, they have some vague good feeling about the culture they grew up in, so they assert their right to call themselves Mormons.  

T.S. Elliott writes that Hell is oneself, Hell is Alone, the other people there merely projections.  The Reformed Mormon's navel gazing spiritual narcissism, all this sitting in your La-Z-Boy, sending good thoughts to the Universe stuff, seems pretty Hellish to me.  It seems like a pretty elaborate way to get out of teaching Primary, or accepting a home teaching assignment.  Shine on, you crazy diamonds!)

Anyway, bowling is what's on my mind.  I have been keeping a photo collection of World Leaders Bowling.  Herewith, my analysis:

Harry Truman.  This photo is very clearly posed, much like old baseball card photos were posed.  His body isn't squared to the lane, and given his stance, he should be releasing the ball.  And he's wearing a suit!  A three-piece suit! With wingtips!  Who wants to bowl with a guy in a three-piece suit?  Not me.  On the other hand, Harry looks determined: he wins points for the ol' raised eyebrow grimace.  CONCLUSION:  This is a tough old bird, the kind of guy who has the bomb, and is not afraid to use it.

George W. Bush.  Form: Excellent.  Visage: Steely and Determined.  Clothing: Bowling Appropriate.  CONCLUSION:  This man is a fraud, a cheat.  He's not bowling; he's playing candlepins.  That's a game for old people and New Englanders, and while they claim it takes a special skill set to master it, true bowlers know that's the bunk.  This guy is throwing a two pound ball and making us think it's a 16 pounder.  This is the kind of dude who would lie about WMDs, just so he could blow up Iraq.  If only we had seen the warning signs!

Vladimir Putin, defacto Tsar of Russia.  Again with the business clothes -- what is with these guys?  He's got an interesting thing going with the variegated ball, but it appears he's slinging it sidearm, like a German solider tossing one of those "potato masher" grenades.  CONCLUSION: Brute power, as befits the former head of the KGB.  Unfortunately, it's far more likely that he uses his ball to smash truculent Chechens, than to do any serious kegling.

Barack Obama.  Yes, I know.  He plays basketball (against hand-chosen opponents).  He runs.  He shimmers with charisma and optimism.  I see him bowl, and all I think is, "Revenge of the Nerds, baby.  Revenge of the Nerds."

Which leads us to at once the most troubling and the most fascinating of our Bowling World Leaders:

Richard Milhous Nixon.  The form?  Impeccable.  The clothes?  Magnificent.  The ball? Bold, yet tasteful.  This is it, folks, the complete package.  If fitness for leadership were based solely on bowling technique, this man would be King of The World.  

Dick, what went wrong?


Friday, April 2, 2010


 North Tonawanda Botanical Gardens, Spring, circa 1976

Easter is a big deal in western New York.  A large part of that is the influence of the tens of thousands of Polish and Irish and Italian Catholics who live there, their sacred celebrations filled with color and light and groaning boards of breads and meats and all manner of deliciousness:

 Easter Sunday Dinner, Houston, 2007.  Ah, ham and asparagus -- why do you fill us with such bliss?

It's more than than.  Winter is over, and that is a relief, no matter how much you profess love for the snow and cold.  It is a long, hard slog, winter in Buffalo, moody and grey and mercurial, rainy one day, bitter cold and snowing the next, with the odd sleet storm thrown in like a hard punch to the kidneys.  When March arrives, muddy and wet, and those first crocuses and daffodils sprout from under the sooty remainders of the last snows, it feels like a resurrection.

I don't know that people who live in a place where it is perpetually warm and sunny appreciate the Biblical account of that first Easter the way that northern people do.  When you see those first green shoots, a thrill runs through you, lightens you, energizes you: what was once dead is now alive again.  We feel, in some small way, what Mary felt at the garden tomb, when she heard Him call her name.  Our hearts pound like Peter's, when he understood that his Friend, his Brother, was not dead, but risen.  Easter in Buffalo is a wonderful thing.

Anyway, less talk, more rock!  On to the photos:

Easter, Houston, 2005.  Eggs on the Boil, taken with my first digital camera.  I thought I was Man-Ray, or something.

More of the same.  I should probably be writing about how I used a Sakitome filter and had the f stop on full or something, but basically, I hit the ball first time, and there it was in the back of the net.  I'm opening a boutique (an obscure Monty Python reference for you).  Easter, Houston, 2005.

 Two of my favorite photos.  Above, on the Red Line, just south of the 18th St Station, Manhattan.  Below, Penn Station, Manhattan.  Easter Week, 2008.

 Easter Morning, Niagara Falls, 2008  - still plenty of snow on the ground...

Enzo, Noah, and Liam, Easter Sunday, 2008.
At the white house on Sweeney...

Mary and Judy Siedlecki, Easter, circa 1952

 Peter and Judy Siedlecki, circa 1953

Mary and Judy Siedlecki, Easter, circa 1956

Judy and Peter Siedlecki, Easter, circa 1956. Look at those glasses, that dour expression, the manly physique: Is it any wonder that I spent the first 18 years of my life explaining to old Polish women that I wasn't Peter's kid?

Mary Beth.  I cannot remember the white house on Sweeney ever being the green and white house on Sweeney, but there it is.  It's a nice shade of green, too.  Given the faint traces of snow and the absence of buds on the shrubs, coupled with what appears to be a new hat and jacket, I am guessing that this was taken at Easter.  This is a great photo, partly because it shows the ol' homestead in an interesting, bygone setting, partly because MB's chapeau looks a lot like a riding hat, and it's fun to imagine that just off camera, she's holding the reins to a noble steed, but mostly because this is the way I always think of my sister: she Gets Things Done.  I don't know where this lovely little girl was heading, but rest assured, she Took Care Of Business when she got there.

Finally, I give you the unofficial mascot of our family Easter holiday festivities, circa 1977:

Yes, it's Nathan, prowling for colored eggs...

Thursday, April 1, 2010


Tomorrow, a small collection of Easter photos, including one that that is mighty amusing.

Stay tuned...