Archive | August, 2014

Fran Lebowitz – a true New Yorker talking through the cheers and boos

31 Aug

Lebowitz portrait

Fran Lebowitz is a comic writer who has a difficult time writing. So instead, she speaks.

 

She’s the quintessential New Yorker. She loves her town. She celebrates it and it celebrates her. Real New Yorker’s like people with opinions – brash, bold ones – and brash, bold opinions are Lebowitz’ chief currency.

 

Her Grade A conversation makes her popular and in demand. She’s simply fun to be around.

 

waverly signI never met her, but her charismatic magnetism is on display in a documentary entitled, “Public Speaking.” The film is directed by her friend, Martin Scorsese. Much of the footage is of Scorsese and Lebowitz sitting and talking in her hangout restaurant, The Waverly Inn in the West Village.

 

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In the film, Lebowitz complains that New York has gotten boring. The grit and nastiness she liked disappeared when the city cleaned up to attract tourists. Especially sanitized was Times Square, an area Lebowitz says no self-respecting New Yorker ever visits.

 

A second trauma that damaged New York, she says, was the AIDS epidemic. The city’s great culture, especially the performing arts, existed in such a high state only because of the demanding and enthusiastic audiences, mostly gay. In her view, the audience is just as important, if not more important, than the performers. The old New York audiences knew every nuance of ballet, opera, all of it. They wouldn’t tolerate a single flaw, and the performers were aware of this. But the caliber of the audiences fell as thousands of gay New Yorkers died of AIDS. This, she said, devastating New York culture and all of the performing arts.

FranLebowitz-quote

Lebowitz has an interesting take on the gay rights movement. She said the best thing about being gay was you could avoid marriage and the military. Now, those benefits have been undone by foggy-headed reformers who were trying to do good.

 

The author of several books who has made countless public appearances, Lebowitz tells Scorsese of her most horrible experience on a stage. She was booed by over a quarter million people.

 

The setting was a massive rally of activists trying to convince leaders of the old Soviet Union to allow Jews (Lebowitz is one) to emigrate. Lebowitz was among the speakers who was asked to read a letter of appeal from one of thousands of oppressed Jews. But she also was asked to say a little something first.

 

Referring to a petition with thousands of signatures, she said something like:

 

“I expect the leaders of Russia to respond positively to these demands. I know I wouldn’t want this many Jewish women mad at me.”

 

And the boos rained down on her.

 

So be it. Nobody can take a joke anymore.

The theme of this blog at NotebookM is, “Speaking, because it is allowed.” What I love about Fran Lebowitz is she speaks. God bless her for that. And God bless Martin Scorsese for bringing us this film about her.

 

By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

Lebowitz Quotes

 

“Very few people possess true artistic ability. It is therefore both unseemly and unproductive to irritate the situation by making an effort. If you have a burning, restless urge to write or paint, simply eat something sweet and the feeling will pass.”

 

“Great people talk about ideas, average people talk about things, and small people talk about wine.”

 

“Romantic love is mental illness. But it’s a pleasurable one. It’s a drug. It distorts reality, and that’s the point of it. It would be impossible to fall in love with someone that you really saw.”

 

“All God’s children are not beautiful. Most of God’s children are, in fact, barely presentable.”

 

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Big war, small peace – did Stephen Hawking really know the truth?

29 Aug

Cambridge3

I was waiting, so I picked up a book. Inside, just a few pages in, was a simple sentence with the power to uplift, encourage, and promote optimism.

 

It seemed to confirm the idea that there was light amid the dark; that somewhere below the horrid nature of mankind there was good trying to surface.

Sadly, that sentence – written as a statement of fact – is probably wrong. Oddly, its author is one of the world’s most intelligent men.

 

Hawking book jacket-bioThe book was “My Brief History,” the 2013 autobiography of physicist Stephen Hawking, the man in the wheelchair with the synthetic voice whose life is now a major motion picture called, “The Theory of Everything.”

 

The movie is more a love story than a science story. Still, its title comes from Hawking’s pursuit of a unified way of explaining all forces in the universe.

In the book, Hawking talks about his birth in Cambridge, England, home of one of the world’s greatest universities. His reason for being born in Cambridge is what uplifted me. His casual little sentence was a gentle piece of history I had never heard of; one of those marvelous pieces of information that suggests we maintain a small degree of civility even as we try to utterly destroy each other. It was like reading for the first time about the unofficial Christmas truce during World War I, when soldiers from both sides climbed out of the trenches, sang songs together, exchanged presents and even played soccer.

 

In Hawking’s case, the scene is World War II. The scientist said his family moved to Cambridge because the English and the Germans had agreed it was not to be bombed. Also under protection was Oxford, and in Germany the universities at Heidelberg and Goettingen.

 

I had never heard anything of the sort, but recognized that such an agreement could easily have been buried in the rubble of all the other destruction. Visualizing the leaders of these two warring countries shaking hands on this was heart-warming. I actually pictured them doing it.

 

But I guess even Hawking can get things wrong.

 

The fact-checking site Snopes.com said the agreement mentioned by Hawking had been an Internet myth. It’s likely to spread further now with Hawking’s book. Additional searches could not confirm the agreement.

 

Of course, Cambridge was without strategic value and bombs were precious, so it was much safer to be in Cambridge than in London. Hawking’s father probably moved the family there just to lessen the odds of being killed.

 

With many others doing the same, the myth of protection probably evolved and spread. I’m sure it made living in Cambridge a lot more comfortable.

 

Cambridge bombedMyth or not, in 2010 a BBC website ran a story on the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Vicarage Terrace in Cambridge. It has a woman named Barbara Wright remembering the incident. She was six. There’s a photo.

 

“Suddenly there was a huge noise,” she said. “The actual walls on either side came in and practically touched us.”

 

The story said nine people were killed in the attack, and that they were the first British civilian casualties of the war.

 

The fact that the myth exists even when there is proof that Cambridge was bombed shows the power of myth and the need to believe in good things.

 

If anyone can shed additional light on the myth, the truth, or Stephen Hawking, please comment. Perhaps the full story still remains to be told. Please don’t, however, write if you have info that the Christmas truce was a myth. Let’s at least leave that one in place. After all, they made a movie out of it.

 

The trailer is below, along with that for the new Hawking movie.

 

By Lanny Morgnanesi

           

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Hobos, happiness and the Big Rock Candy Mountain

24 Aug


Hobos

I used to think “Big Rock Candy Mountain” was a children’s song. It’s not. It’s a song by and about hobos that someone made into a children’s song.

 

Harry McClintock, a hobo known as Haywire Mac, was the first to record it in 1928. It depicts a hobo’s paradise. You don’t see many hobos today but they were common and plentiful during the Depression.

 

The Coen brothers used the song in the movie, “Oh Brother Where Art Thou?” Recently, I watched the movie again on TV and gave a close listen to the lyrics of the song.

 

Harry-mcclintockIt describes a place where cops have wooden legs so hobos can out run them. The jails are made of tin so hobos can easily escape. On the Big Rock Candy Mountain, boxcars are always empty and lakes are filled with stew and whiskey. There are no short-handled shovels.

 

That’s the hobo’s idea of paradise.

 

After hearing the song, I though that if I were a hobo my paradise would have no cops and no jails. It would be a place where someone down on their luck could crawl out of their hole and make a good living; a place where even a hobo could be somebody.

 

What I failed to understand was that in my hobo paradise, a hobo would cease being a hobo. As I listened to the song again, it became clear that while hobos may want an easier life, they still want to be hobos.

 

Which raises the question: How true is this of other people and their lives?

 

Amidst our general hardship and discomfort, apart from our complaints and dissatisfaction with the small and the large, are we actually … happy?

 

As you think, consider this little story.

 

I once spent the Fourth of July at a country club. The fireworks were fantastic and the food was beyond good. There were hot dogs and hamburgers but also barbecued chicken and ribs, all you could eat. On a table the length of an interstate was an assortment of desserts.

 

In addition to bringing me, my host brought an African-American boy, about 12. He was from a Philadelphia neighborhood that was experiencing a rash of random shootings and killings. The little man was brought to the suburbs via a program designed to give poor children a break from the stresses of violence and poverty.

He was the only black person at the affair.

 

As I worked on my second helping of ribs, he sat with his head on the table, almost dozing off.

 

“Tell me,” I said. “Would you rather be here or home?”

 

He paused, apparently not wanting to seem ungrateful, then smiled and said, “Home.”

 

For him, happiness was the familiar, not the strange.

 

The familiar is comfortable and predictable. While I can’t document this, I have heard of a study showing that people, if given the chance to exchange all their problems and ills with the problems and ills of another person, would decline. If true, this is further evidence that no matter who we are, we like our lives.

 

Andy-Capp-Cartoon Pictures (1)It’s been said that England is defined by its class structure, and that people recognize and take pride in their station, be it high or low. They wear cloths and banners proclaiming their class – like the Jeff cap worn by the working-class cartoon character Andy Capp.

 

I don’t think we do that in America, but maybe I’m just blind to it. Either way, listening closely to “Big Rock Candy Mountain” has made me believe that America, for all its problems, is a land of contentment for both the haves and have-nots.

 

It’s so content that most don’t even vote.

 

While a peaceful populace has its advantages, it also has its dangers. Injustices are easily wrought upon the passive. Eventually, they create a destabilizing imbalance that will harm everyone – even their originators.

 

Income inequality is such an imbalance. In nations, stability and economic might are derived from a deep, viable, productive middle class, with a minimum of poverty and want. But when wealth is concentrated among the few, as has occurred in the U.S., the whole system is threatened because the many stop spending.

 

An alarm was sounded recently by Standard and Poor’s, the bond-rating company. It released a study showing that income inequality is responsible for a slowdown in the American economy. A headline on Fortune.com read:

More concentrated wealth means less spending than if money was spread to more people, according to a new report.

 

This realization, and others like it, is putting income inequality on the national agenda. Balance, to some degree, eventually will be restored. But it is because the elite acted, not the complacent.

 

I realize people get set in their ways; that they like routine and follow habits religiously. Still, there comes a point when routine is dispensed with in order to preserve dignity, honor and respect that were compromised by imbalance. At home, this happened in Ferguson, Missouri. Abroad, it happened in Gaza. The wise nation will avoid such flashpoints. More common is that they will act after the fact.

 

The better way, at least in the U.S., is self-action prior to the flashpoints.

 

We all need to get off the Big Rock Candy Mountain and take personal responsibility for our collective fate. Areas of concern are fairness, equal opportunity, equal treatment, social justice and civility. Legislation and tax policy must be designed for large segments of the population rather than small.

 

Key tools: Vocalization and voting.

 

Voting, real voting, is a powerful concept that has gone dormant in the U.S. We should try reviving it, just to keep the system fair and honest. Voting shows we are alive and paying attention.

 

There is nothing wrong with being happy and complacent. Complaisance, however, should never interfere with our ability to stop those who would chip away at our happiness.

 

Human rights, said Alexander Hamilton, are written “by the hand of the divinity itself.” They cannot, he said, “be erased or obscured by mortal power.”

 

By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

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On Breaking the Cycle of Hate in Gaza and Israel

5 Aug

Gaza rubble

Dangerous are the men and women with nothing to lose. Count the people of Gaza among them.

 

They will have the world burn and themselves with it. They are accustomed to death, to being trapped and hunted, and will die just to make a point.

 

Gaza is a place often described as an open-air prison. The people can’t leave. They are caged. What goes in and out is controlled. Not even a fish can be taken from the sea. The view of that sea can ease the claustrophobia, but only if one ignores the war ships on the horizon.

 

Mohammed Suliman, a Palestinian human rights worker in Gaza, compares the plight of his people to the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto. In the Huffington Post he writes:

 

“The besieged Jews of the Warsaw ghetto had a motto ‘to live and die in dignity.’ As I sit in my own besieged ghetto, I think how Palestinians have honored this universal value. We live in dignity and we die in dignity, refusing to accept subjugation.”

 

There is nothing unnatural in what the Gazans do. In their situation, most of us would do the same. We don’t realize that, and won’t admit to that, only because we can’t see ourselves living such a life, can’t even imagine that such a life exists.

 

If the Palestinians in Gaza were docile, their conditions would be better.

Gaza map2The blockade of Gaza is justified as way to combat Palestinian terrorism. And so in striking out at those who created the blockade, Gaza must face its own terror.

 

Israel says it will make Gaza pay an “intolerable price,” which it can. Hamas says it will destroy Israel, which it cannot.

 

Hamas, which rules Gaza, sends men into Israel with guns and bombs. It sends in barrages of largely ineffective missiles. In return, Israel destroys Gaza neighborhoods with jet fighters and missiles, effective ones.

 

The death toll is lopsided. In Gaza, schools, hospitals, homes and places of refuge are bombed. So-called “human shields” die rather than shield. Maternity hospitals become morgues.

 

What Israel sees as Palestinian terrorism, the Palestinians see as resistance. There is no common ground for negotiations. This lack of understanding is ironic, since the Hamas approach was used by Jewish freedom fighters in their battle for independence with Britain.

 

What both sides can understand, however, is the preponderance of hate and the need for vengeance and retribution. There is no thought or concern for humanity.

 

While American critics of Israel are being silenced with charges of anti-Semitism, and while real and vicious anti-Semitism grows in sympathetic Europe, I try to remember humanity.

 

I try to avoid the obscuring cloak of religion and see people simply as people and tragedy simply as tragedy. I ignore old scores but recognize the destructive dynamics of power and politics and the readiness to kill to maintain power.

 

I try to see the many victims of power, and the people who must rally around it for protection and as a way to secure the basic necessities of life.

 

With this kind of view, perhaps some answers can be found. Yet the situation grows increasingly complex.

 

There is new instability in the Middle East that is making matters worse. A growing number of Arab nations see Hamas and the Islamic movement as a threat. Like Israel, they want Hamas neutralized. And so these countries, mainly Egypt and Saudi Arabia, provide back channel support and momentum in the campaign against Gaza. In a way, we are witnessing a proxy war in the Sunni-Shiite fight for regional dominance, which is further complicated by an intra-Sunni rivalry.

 

As a result, hostility is layered upon hostility, making resolution much harder to achieve.

 

When the current war ends, Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia may find – to their disappointment — that Hamas actually is stronger. After absorbing such terrific blows, it may win concessions pushed by the United Nations and the international community. Some of the borders around Gaza could open.

 

With people being able to get TVs, medicine, motorbikes and much more of what they need and desire, a degree of calm and possibly optimism will set in. The intelligent thing for Israel and Egypt to do is to go beyond any negotiated settlement and open borders even wider and increase that optimism. They should rebuild schools, hospitals and neighborhoods. They should initiate cultural exchanges and promote commerce and trade.

 

Gaza should be made a decent place to live.

 

Regardless, some Palestinian fighters will continue their attacks, keeping Israel under threat. But slowly, very slowly, sympathy for Hamas could shift to a more accommodating faction. With hate and revenge so insidious, nothing short of a Gandhi-esque approach will work in Gaza. And it will take time.

 

As a big assist, America’s warlike attitudes in these conflicts must end. American Jewish organization and American Jews in general can and should play a part in a new peace initiative. Likewise, Christian organizations must seek to heal and stop seeing Arab progress as a threat to Biblical prophecy. All who value religion need to recognize the importance and necessity of brotherhood and the sanctity of life.

 

A continuation of current policy only guarantees resistance, rebellion, instability, unhappiness, death and a bankruptcy of our collective spirit.

 

Mohammed al-Banna, a Palestinian who in one morning lost nine of his in-laws, told the New York Times, “The aggression here is creating a new generation of youth who want revenge for all the crimes.”

There is no future in this. The cycle of hate and death needs to be broken. The outstanding question is: Who or what has the courage, stamina, patience, temperament and love of mankind to do it?

By Lanny Morgnanesi

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