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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

What'll It Be, The Forest Or The Trees?

My ex-wife Valerie once referred to Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris as "the butter movie."

Huh?

Yeah. I brought up Last Tango In Paris one day, I don't remember the context. Perhaps I was just asking if she'd seen it.

"Oh, you mean the butter movie," she said.

"The butter movie?" What the hell are you talking about, woman?
The "butter movie?" Well...

Well....evidently there's a scene in that particular flick in which Marlon Brando sodomizes Maria Schneider, (they're both dead now, by the way) and before doing so, he lubricates her anus with butter.

Now, how did that detail escape me? I've seen this movie maybe three times, and somehow I never remembered that detail. Maybe I was in the kitchen making a sandwich. Probably with butter on it, if you want to be grossed out.

But the butter thing was the ONLY thing Valerie remembered about Last Tango In Paris. To her, this was "the butter movie." Well, Valerie tended to think in such categorizing terms. When I got The Guns of Navarone from Netflix and put it on the DVD player, Valerie's comment when she saw what I was watching was "War guys." That's all it meant to her. "Butter movie." "War guys." I suspect that  my second wife was autistic. But never mind.

It just goes to show you how some of us notice certain things and some of us don't. And some of us remember certain things, and some of us don't. And for some of us, certain things jump out at them and make an impression, and for others, they just don't.

This picture came out in 1972, and when it did, middle-class America threw a hissy-fit, because middle-class America considered this film to be pornographic. Never mind the fact that middle-class America is the world's largest consumer of pornography. Guest-hosting the Tonight Show one night shortly after this film came out, Sandy Duncan expressed her outrage that such a "dirty" movie could be considered "art." Sandy Duncan. America's girl next door. If she's still alive, I would refer Ms. Duncan to http://www.pornhub.com/ if she wants to see "dirt."

But my subject today is memory, not the hypocrisy of middle-class America in the 1970s. So let's move on...

Once, when I was about eight years old, my father took my younger sister Lynn and me on an overnight camping trip. He had a tiny "teardrop" trailer hitched to his 1950 Ford pickup truck, and the three of us managed to sleep in that trailer. (Lynn and I were small.)

In the morning, when my father was cooking breakfast for all of us, (I believe it was scrambled eggs and hot dogs, yum yum) I made the mistake of imitating my admired older cousin John, who routinely addressed his father as "Pop."

My father dropped his frying pan, grabbed the front of my shirt and screamed in my face, "Don't EVER call me 'Pop!' I am your FATHER!"

Just one more reason to hate my dad. He gave me several hundred more as the years went by.

But for some reason I, who have a reputation for having a good memory, blocked out that one. I forgot it.

Many, many years later, Lynn (who died in 2004), reminded me of it. She remembered. She was there when it happened. She described, in vivid detail, how Dad grabbed me that morning and screamed in my face that I was NOT to address him as "Pop." But for some reason, I did not remember it. It was Lynn's most significant memory of that overnight camp-out. But I had blocked it out.

It was a revelation to me. I didn't know I could do that, block out a memory. I thought I was incapable of it.

Makes you wonder. Many years ago I had a conversation with a psychologist. I told her that I admired people who could do that. I envied them that ability. The ability to wipe away memories, just refuse to remember some things. I told her that I did not have that ability. I remember everything, I said, and I can't forget anything. And I do have a reputation among my family and acquaintances for having an excellent memory, probably because I've been keeping a journal off and on since I was 13. I told this psychologist that people who can block out memories have a talent that I lacked.

"But," she replied, "it's not necessarily a good thing to be able to do that. Because when people block out a memory, it usually resurfaces somewhere else."

In other words, there is no escaping the past. It isn't lost, it isn't even past, as William Faulkner pointed out. It's always kind of hanging there, waiting to come and get you. (Faulkner's masterpiece, Absalom, Absalom! is all about the past coming to get you.)

And apparently, it will get you, one way or the other. You either remember the moment at age eight when your brother pushed you into the pond and you almost drowned, or 30 years later some variation of that memory will come back and send you into a midnight, screaming sweat.

And sometimes we remember things the way they were supposed to be, rather than the way they were. I had this conversation years ago with my friend Jim. Way back in 1977, when the first Star Wars film came out, I was living in Ventura, California, not far from Camarillo, where Jim grew up. We planned to go and see this movie together. About 20 years later, Jim swore up and down that we had, in fact, gone to see Star Wars together that night.

But that wasn't the way I remembered it. The way I remembered it was, he and I were getting ready to go and see this picture, in fact we were on our way out the door, when suddenly my telephone rang.

It was my employer, Wells Fargo Security Services. They wanted me to come in and work a swing shift.

That took care of the movie. Jim went to see it with his "other" best friend, Oliver. I went to work.

Twenty years later we were hashing this out by e-mail. Jim SWORE that he and I saw that movie together. I remembered that I had been called in to work at the 11th hour and didn't see the film until many weeks later, in San Diego, in the company of my older sister.


R2D2, who always reminded me of a trash can, cute
as he was.

I didn't want to get into an argument about something so silly, so I said, "Well, you may be right, but this is the way I remember it..."

Jim came back and admitted that I was right. Jim is an attorney, and has some professional experience with this kind of problem. "You see," he explained, "I was remembering that you were there because you were SUPPOSED to be there. This often creates problems in court cases. People sometimes remember things the way they were supposed to be, rather than the way they actually were. That's why sometimes, if you're investigating an accident, for example, you'll hear four or five different versions of how it happened. Because people remember things the way they were supposed to happen, rather than the way they did."

Well, so that's the way memory works. Not too well, and not too reliably. And it would seem that many of us anyway, are not reading from the same sheet music. My ex-wife Valerie, who only remembered Last Tango In Paris as a film in which somebody buggered somebody else using butter, would probably tell you that she was a forebearing angel, while I was a lazy, loudmouthed, verbally abusive drunk. I would tell you that she was a selfish, manic-depressive, egotistical, overweight, loudmouthed, lazy old sow who wanted to do nothing all day but lie on her fat butt watching cable television and stuffing her face with pizza and ice cream.

And we'd both be right.

Or wrong. Depends on what you decide to remember. And not.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

My Evening With The Cleavers


1958.......What a year.
I've had an active imagination all of my life, and while I've had as many sexual fantasies as anyone else, I can safely say that most of my copious fantasising has had nothing to do with sex.

I have a whole series of "pet fantasies." One of my favorites is the good old "time-warp" fantasy. I get to go back in time like those guys did in that stupid Irwin Allen television show The Time Tunnel back in the 1960s. 


...1966...One of the dumbest TV shows of all time.
  
If you're old enough to remember The Time Tunnel, it was one of the most idiotic shows ever filmed. (Well, everything Irwin Allen did was idiotic; "idiotic" was his trademark.)

On this show, the government was (secretly, it goes without saying) working on a massive boondoggle, "Project Tic-Toc," (underground, in the western desert, of course, you know, where they see all the UFOs?) trying to build a "tunnel" that could transcend time.

As the plot would invariably have it, rumors circulate that the government is about to scrap this project. (I would. Wouldn't ANY taxpayer?)

Then James Darren, (whom those old enough to remember will recall as "Moondoggie" in the "Gidget" movies with Sandra Dee), a young idealist who fervently believes in the project, decides to prove to everyone that it works. So, without permission, he twiddles the dials, dashes into the Time Tunnel, and disappears into the past!

Robert Colbert goes after him, and for one TV season anyway, Whit Bissell and the rest of the gang back in subterranean Arizona try to retrieve these two characters as they, Darren and Colbert, bounce around everywhere from the Titanic to ancient Troy (and I think they meet Billy the Kid somewhere along the way.)

I have had this fantasy, the fantasy of going back in time.

But in my case, the fantasy usually does not involve significant incidents in history. That was one of the most idiotic things about the idiotic Time Tunnel; these guys seemed to always land in some historical spot that was famous, you know, like the deck of the Titanic or the walls of Troy.

They never seemed to land in the middle of some unknown farmer's field in Mesopotamia, circa 4,000 B.C., where nothing special was going on except cows shitting.

My time-warp fantasy only has one significant historical locus: I wonder how I could have messed with history if I had been in Pontius Pilate's position in first century Judaea.

Knowing what I do about Roman history -- and I have studied it -- I could see myself refusing to turn Jesus over to that mob..."just to be a prick," as my father used to say.

"Who's procurator here? You or me?" I could hear myself shouting.  "Beat it, all of yiz! Hit the bricks!"

Then we'd see how Jesus, determined to get himself crucified, would get me out of his way. (Or if he'd even bother.) I could see myself putting him under my protection, inviting him to have supper, maybe even washing his feet (just to be a smartass.)

About that time, God the Father would probably strike me dead with a thunderbolt for screwing with his plans, (again, just to get this nuisance out of the way.)

But if you gotta go, tweaking God's nose can't be beat as a great way to do it.

Besides, dammit, I'm an American. I have a better sense of justice than the Romans did. And Jesus was innocent of any crime! I'd like to think I would have told the lynch mob to get lost. You know, faced 'em down, like Wyatt Earp. Or John Wayne, Or one of those cool guys.

Anyway...
Hugh Beaumont (1909-1981) played the father,
Ward Cleaver, on the TV series Leave It To Beaver.

My favorite fantasy is the one where I go back in time, not to some big event like the Crucifixion or the Titanic, but to some imaginary scenario where I get to fill in the chronological "locals" on stuff that's going to happen in the future. Not the big stuff, usually: the small stuff.

But, then again, the small stuff often IS the big stuff, isn't it? Who, in 1876, thought that this new gadget the telephone was going to redefine modern life?

Who suspected that the internal combustion engine was going to make the blacksmith, a town-and-village fixture for centuries, into a man looking for a job?

Ask any twentysomething today what the word "blacksmith" even meant. They won't be able to tell you, because they don't know. They don't know anything. They weren't taught anything in school except that they should have high self-esteem.

Barbara Billingsley (1915-2010) played the
mother, June Cleaver, on Leave It To Beaver.
Twentysomethings know how to send text messages, and they know how to play games on their cellphones. Oh, and they can identify Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez.

That's about all they know -- I'd be willing to bet most of them never even heard of Alexander Graham Bell, who invented the prototype of that very gadget on which they're now breathlessly telling their friends, "OMG! Jessi told Sarah that Ashley likes Mason, lol!!!"

Yecch.

Okay, now that I got that out of the way, here's my fantasy:

I follow Darren and Colbert into the Time Tunnel, and after the requisite pops and bursts of smoke to show that Project Tic-Toc still isn't working right, I'm deposited into ...

the living room of Ward and June Cleaver on Leave It To Beaver, circa 1958. The Cleavers were very nice people, and if I had to land somewhere in the past, I think I would just as soon it be the Cleavers' living room as Golgotha. We could even do a Pleasantville thing here, and I could appear in black-and-white, like Ward and June themselves.

In fact, that might make it even more fun.

They wonder who I am and where I come from. I'm not sure myself. But we could borrow a page from The Time Tunnel and have Ward and June remark, (sotto voce to each other of course because they're too polite to offend me) that I'm dressed strangely: they're not used to seeing an adult wearing blue jeans and a San Diego Padres T-shirt -- suits and ties are all they ever see men wearing. (Besides, in 1958 the San Diego Padres were still a Pacific Coast League team and the Cleavers probably never heard of them.)

But they quickly perceive that I'm as harmless as I am dazed, and June offers me coffee. I don't want them to think I'm crazy and call the butterfly-net boys, so I'm not going to come right out and tell them that I appeared out of the future. They'd never understand Project Tic-Toc. I still don't. Still, they can't help but notice that there's something a tad unusual about me.

Thinking quickly, (which I've never been able to do, by the way) I tell them that I'm on the faculty of -- quick, what state was Mayfield, the Cleavers' home town in? I always thought Illinois, but the show never said so -- uh...State University. (There's a nice generic term.) We've been doing some research on a government contract (very hush-hush, like every stupid, idiotic, wasteful thing the government does) and...uh...uh....that's how I came to be here. Can't tell you much more than that.

"How do you take your coffee, Mr. Dupuis?" June politely asks.

"Black, thank you," I reply, shaking my head theatrically to emphasise that I'm still a little bit dazed. "I'll just call and have someone come get me, if you'll tell me your address."

Here I pull my first faux-pas: I reach for my cellphone.

This is now considered an antique. But prior to 1970,
just about every telephone in America looked like this,
except the wall units, of course.

"What is THAT thing?" Ward asks. My flip-phone looks a little like one of the communicators from Star Trek, but Star Trek itself is still eight years away.

"Oh, THIS thing?" I say, hastily shoving it back into my pocket. "It's a....a cigarette lighter. I forgot for a moment that I gave up smoking."

I think of asking to use their good old, standard black Bell Telephone unit, but who would I call? "We've no place to go in this time," as I remember Scotty telling Captain Kirk on an episode of Star Trek in which the U.S.S. Enterprise found itself in a time-warp situation similar to this one, only they weren't being hosted by the Cleavers. (Come to think of it, that might have been a lot of fun, too.)

June offers me more coffee.

"Well, Kelley," says Ward, humoring this goddamn nut in his living room, "What sort of research are you involved with, up there at State University?" (Or down there, as the case may be.)

"Uh, well, it's....uh, electronics."

"Electronics, really?"

"Yup," I sip my coffee, trying frantically to think of how I'm going to con my way out of this.

"Well, what can you tell us about the electronic world of the future?" Ward asks, with that feigned chuckle he used to use on the show when he was more anxious than amused.

"Yes, Kelley," June chimes in, ever the faithful spouse-as-sidekick, "What wonders are you electronic geniuses cooking up?"

Geniuses? Oh, yeah! Us guys! Well, okay, uh....

At this point there's no longer any question of my being able to bullshit these nice people. I might as well just uncork the whole nauseating vision and let them call the loony bin.

"Let's see. As of this year, the transistor has already replaced the vacuum tube. That was a step forward, obviously. We no longer have to wait five minutes for our radios and television sets to warm up, and don't have to worry about them overheating either. But...um, um, let's see. Well, we're working on a concept (yeah, right: Bill Gates was three years old in 1958, in fact he's two weeks younger than I), we call the "microchip." It's going to replace the transistor."

"Really? 'Microchip?' " says Ward politely. "What in the world could that be?"

"Believe it or not, it's going to be, if we ever get it developed, a sliver of silicon smaller than your pinkie fingernail, which will hold more information than any of today's (1958's) room-sized computers. Computers are going to get smaller and smaller and faster and faster in the decades ahead of us. You'll live to see it. At least one of you will live to see a day when the computer is as accepted a part of the average American household as the TV set is now."

In the 1950s, laptop computers
were still some distance away.

"Which one of us will live to see it?" June asks.

I blanch, then panic. "Even if I knew when someone was gonna die, I wouldn't tell them, and I don't claim to know," I add hastily. (Barbara Billingsley outlived Hugh Beaumont by close to 30 years.)

Geez, if I claimed to know when these people were going to die, one of them would call 911 immediately, were it not for the fact that in 1958 there was no such thing as 911.

"You guys are working on a silicon chip that will make computers that small?" Ward asks.

Ooh. Who the hell are 'us guys?'  I stir my coffee.  "Well, it's only at the talking stage. Nobody's actually tried developing any such thing. It's just something we, you know, yak about over coffee." I'm hoping this establishes my bona fides as a sane person, distracting the poor Cleavers from the fact that I just dropped out of The Time Tunnel and into their living room.

"But it is possible?" Ward presses me.

"Yeah, theoretically, it is. It's just that nobody's figured out a way to do it yet." And wouldn't, for another 15 years or so. "But if and when it does happen, I think it's going to really change the way we live. Imagine a world in which you can sit down in your living room and access, well, basically, the entire Library of Congress. I mean, everything will be out there, and all you'll have to do is type a few words on a keyboard, and there it is."

"Unbelievable," says June.

"Yes. But it's coming. I really think it's coming. Your sons, Wally and Beaver, (how do I explain knowing who THEY are?) will watch their own children cheating on their homework by copying stuff off the Internet, you know, the way kids copy stuff out of the encyclopedia now."

"Internet?" says Ward.

About this time, I'm wishing that the guys back in Arizona would get that Time Tunnel gadget working again and zap me to ... well, probably the wrong place. But I'd rather be telling Napoleon that he'd better postpone Waterloo than try to explain to these people about the Internet.

Still ... this is kind of fun. I ask June for some more coffee. She's a wonderful hostess. She not only brings me more coffee, but a cinnamon roll, baked just that morning at the Mayfield Bakery, to go with it.

"Thank you," I say to her. "By the way, do you really do housework in high heels?"

"No, but the network insists that I wear them," she replies. "Their reasoning is, in another season or two, Jerry and Tony are both going to be taller than I am, and they don't want me to look like the boys' kid sister."

I knew there had to be a reason.

Ward's still humoring me. "Are we going to see things like flying cars and space travel?"


I had to tell Ward Cleaver that we haven't seen anything like
this yet, and probably won't.
"Space travel, yes. In fact as you're well aware, the Soviets put a satellite in orbit just last fall.

Will men walk on the moon? Yes, and the Americans get there first. You'll both live to see that. But it didn't last long. After a few moon-landing missions, Congress cut off the money and, as of the early 21st century, man has not been back to the moon in some 30 years. There's just a lot of junk lying around up there that we left, including a golf ball. Yeah, one smart-aleck astronaut decided he just had to experience what it would be like to hit a golf ball on the moon. He did it, and in one-sixth gravity, the thing carried probably farther than one of Babe Ruth's home runs.

"Flying cars? No. In fact, you'd be surprised at how little the technology of the automobile is actually going to change in the next 50 years. I mean sure, there will be design and engineering changes, reflecting, among other things, an outrageous increase in the price of gasoline which makes people want more fuel-efficient cars. But the car of 2008 is still essentially the car of 1958, just without the fins. It's a thing that burns gasoline, and gets you a speeding ticket if you're not careful.

Air travel is with us to stay. In fact by the mid-1960s nobody, in the United States anyway, travels by train anymore, or crosses the Atlantic on an ocean liner. They fly. It's faster. It already is. That's not to say the railroads and shipping companies will go out of business; of course they don't. They just sort of get themselves out of the passenger business and concentrate on the freight business instead. Because believe it or not, in the year 2000, the steel wheel on the steel rail is still the most efficient way to move large amounts of freight. And as for ocean ships, well, if you have 250 automobiles manufactured in Japan, and you want to get them to San Francisco, sticking them on an enormous freighter is a better idea than flying them over one at a time. So trains and ships are still with us, even though for most people, travel of more than a couple of hundred miles usually involves an airplane, not a train or a ship. There are cruise ships, but that's just for people who want to take expensive vacations.There's a federally-subsidized passenger rail service called Amtrak, which seems to stay with us year after year although it loses money like a sieve. Basically it operates between Washington D.C. and Boston. It's not efficient anywhere else; America's just too big for trains. Everyone flies."

About this time, Ward starts to get seriously suspicious.

How I might have landed in the Cleavers' living
room.
"Mister," he asks me, "where did you come from? I mean, June, Beaver, Wally and I just finished dinner; the boys are upstairs doing their homework, and all of a sudden here you are in our living room. You're not dressed like anyone I ever saw -- I know where San Diego is, but who the heck are the 'Padres?' -- and I didn't even hear the doorbell ring. How did you get here?"

Sigh. I can't tell them about Project Tic-Toc.  "Have you ever heard of a 'wormhole?'" I ask.

"No."

"It's a concept in physics. Theoretically, it's possible for someone to move from one time to another. I think I might have encountered one. It wasn't my idea, believe me. I wasn't trying to travel in time, it just happened. Ten minutes ago I was in the year 2011, now here I am in 1958.

"Now, BEFORE you call the cops, let me show you something!" (Thank God, my wallet is still on me.) This is my WALLET I'm pulling out, folks. It is NOT a gun! I don't own a gun!"

I pull out my driver's license. "Look at that," I say, handing it to June, who looks at it and then, with the same astonished look on her face she had when Wally and the Beav came down to dinner wearing stocking caps in the episode where Wally gave Beaver a haircut and just about scalped him, hands it to Ward.

"That's my driver's license, issued by the State of California," I say.  "Look at the dates on it. It gives my date of birth as October 12, 1955. It expires on October 12, 2015. Now, according to that driver's license I'm not yet three years old. But look at me, I wouldn't carry around a thing like that as a gag. My sense of humor isn't that weird."

"So, you..." Ward begins

"I'm thinking I stumbled into a wormhole," I say. "Don't ask me. We've been messing with some things up there (or down there) at State University that even I don't understand. All I know is what I just told you. Ten minutes ago I was in the year 2011. Now I'm here in '58. By the way, is Groucho Marx on tonight? You Bet Your Life? That's still on, isn't it?"

"Yes, but not tonight," Ward says.

"Well, I'm sorry. As you can see from my driver's license, in 1958 I was not yet three years old. I've seen some of the old shows, but mostly I only remember them from DVD or videotape."

"I've heard of videotape, but what is DVD?" June asks.

"Oh, it's not even worth getting into," I say. "Just a gadget. It stands for 'Digital Video Disc.' Just a gadget."

Ward hands me back my driver's license. "You...you're really from the future?"

"It would seem so. Your future, not mine. I could tell you the year you're going to die, but I won't. Don't worry -- it isn't for a long time yet. You're going to be around for quite a few more years. My own date of death I don't know. That's part of my future, not yours. So...You gonna call the cops and have me picked up?"

"I don't see why," Ward says. "You may be nutty, but you seem perfectly calm. You're not raving. Finish your coffee. Then we'll decide what we should do next."

"Thanks, I appreciate that."

June straightens her dress. "Well," she says, "assuming this crazy story is true, and you did just....land here from somewhere in the future, tell us...what is life in the future going to be like?"

"Not as different as you might imagine," I say, thankful that they're not running into the street screaming for the National Guard. "We have more gadgets, and things move a bit faster, but basically, life in the early 21st century is still just life. People get up, go to work or school and come home just as they do now. They get married, have children and die, just as they do now."

"What about the Cold War?" Ward asks. "Did either side ever win?"

"Our side did. But not the way you might imagine. There was never a Third World War, although plenty of people were predicting it. The Soviet Union was never conquered, it just ran out of money. The USSR shut down in 1991. Incredible as it may seem, the map of eastern Europe in 1992 looks pretty much like the map of eastern Europe in 1912. The Russians simply realized that they couldn't afford to maintain an empire anymore. They were running out of oil money -- oil, that's what modern history is really all about. Some historians think the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor because they were afraid that American naval power might threaten their sources of oil in southeast Asia.

"Anyway, the USSR officially went out of business on Christmas Day, 1991. After that it was just Russia again."

"Does Russia become a democracy?" June asks.

"Not the way you and I understand it, no. Russia in 2011 is basically being run by a tightly-insulated circle of crooks, mainly for their own benefit. But they're no longer trying to convert the world to an idealogy, like the Soviets were. They're just stealing fortunes for themselves. But the Iron Curtain came down. Stalin's idea of sealing off Russia from the rest of the world turned out to be just too expensive."

"And the Red Chinese?" Ward asks.

"Oh, yeah. China. China made its own particular deal with the devil. China in the early 21st century is still officially a communist country. There's no political freedom there. But economic freedom, well, that's another story. The Coca-Cola company, believe it or not, moved into China in 1978. By 2000 China was swarming with private companies, making money like crazy, and the Chinese government went along with it, because they were making money too. And being essentially a slave economy, China became for western companies -- guess what? -- a source of cheap labor. Today, in 1958, 'Made In Japan' is the sobriquet for cheap goods, right? By 2005, 'Made in China' has replaced 'Made in Japan' as that sobriquet. 'Made in China,' 'Made in Bangladesh,' anywhere companies can get buck-an-hour labor."

"Where in the heck is 'Bangladesh?'" Ward asks.

"Oh, that's uh...I think today it's called East Pakistan. It broke away and became a separate country around 1970 or so. A number of countries in south Asia and Africa are going to get new names as colonialism sort of recedes. Can I think of some more? Uh, what's now Upper Volta is going to become Burkina Faso. Rhodesia becomes Zimbabwe. A lot of those countries renamed themselves when they gained independence. South Africa is still South Africa, but they finally got rid of apartheid."

"Apartheid? What on earth is that?" June asks, her pearl necklace jiggling.

"Official policy of racial segregation. You never heard of it? It's like what we have in Mississippi now, in 1958. Well, A lot of people in the United States are going to start raising hell, just a few years from now, about racial segregation here -- it's already started, in fact; you may have read in the papers a few years ago about Brown vs. Board of Education in, I think it was, Topeka? That's just the beginning. There's a lot more of that coming. Segregation in the American south is going to be done away with after much, MUCH trouble, and the same in South Africa, only it takes longer. But Nelson Mandela, a black guy who kind of spearheaded the campaign against apartheid in that country, after spending a lot of time in prison, wound up as South Africa's president before he died. History pulls funny stuff that way." (I almost said "funny shit," but then remembered who I was talking to.)

How do I explain 900-channel cable
TV to Ward & June?
"Kelley, you said something about life going 'faster,'" Ward says. "What did you mean by that? Were you talking about everyone traveling by plane instead of by train, or what?"

"That's just part of it," I explain. "Mostly, the speeding-up of life results from all those damned gadgets I just mentioned. Okay, look..." I reach back into my pocket. "This isn't really a cigarette lighter," I say, brandishing my Verizon flip-phone. "This is a telephone. Here, look at it," I hand it to Ward.

"This little thing is a telephone? But it's not connected to anything! Where's the cord?"

"It doesn't need one."

"But how on earth does it...work?"

"Today, in 1958, it doesn't. That thing's just a paperweight in this world. And I almost wish it would remain one, because if you ask me, the cellular telephone was the most obnoxious invention of all time. Essentially what happened was, they created a global network of microwave systems, and these tiny telephones work by means of those microwave networks. In 2011 you can make a phone call from your car as easily as you make one from your kitchen now. And a lot of idiots do, and it causes a lot of traffic accidents. Convenience encourages stupidity. People do stupid things because they can. Imagine being on the subway -- and in 2011 we do still have subways -- and being forced to listen to some idiot sitting next to you, having an argument with his wife on the telephone. Happens all the time. I hate those damn things. I wish I didn't have it. I'm glad I'm in '58 for the moment, where the stupid thing doesn't work."

"So...People are making telephone calls from their cars, and on the subway," Ward says. "I can see where that might get to be a problem."

"You have no idea," I say, rolling my eyeballs.

"What else makes life...faster in your time?"

"Television is a biggie."

"Yes, yes. Tell us what's going to happen with television."

"Oh, you don't want to know. It just gets worse and worse, because there's more and more of it, and it's all the same garbage," I say. "Starting about half a dozen years from now, something called 'cable' begins creeping into our lives. We folks here in '58 all have antennas on our roofs, and we get NBC, CBS and ABC and that's about it. Look at any suburb from an airplane and it looks like a chicken coop, all those antennas on all those houses. Well, the antennas gradually start to disappear as cable services become available. They will hook a cable up to your TV set and you'll be able to get more channels. Of course, you have to pay for that, like you would a magazine subscription, but over the years it greatly increases the number of channels everyone is able to get. The two things feed each other: the more cable, the more channels. By 2011 you can hook up to maybe 900 channels. But it's all the same old trash. It's just that there's so much more of it, it becomes specialized to an incredible degree. Ward, do you like to play golf?"

"Yes, I do play on the weekend sometimes."

"Well, by 2000 there's a Golf Channel. You can just watch golf all the time if you want. There's also a cooking channel, a real estate channel, a couple of channels just for women" -- I nod at June -- "a channel for African-Ameri- sorry, I think here in '58 we still call them 'negroes,' -- a channel for surgery...you name it, it's sickening. Because it has totally fragmented our society. In 1958 almost everybody watches The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday night. By 2005 no two people are watching the same channel at any given time. Everyone's just watching the channel that panders to their particular interest. A country in which 900 people are watching 900 different channels is no longer a country.

"But you asked about the speeding-up of life. Television advertising time eventually gets so expensive that commercials get shorter and shorter and louder and louder. In 2010 I watched an old film of some television commercials from 1963. That was the year Leave It To Beaver went off the air, by way."

"We're going to lose our jobs in 1963?" June asks.

"Yeah, but don't worry about it," I say. "You'll both find plenty of work. So will Jerry and Tony. Anyhow, when I watched these 1963 television commercials from 2005, I couldn't get over how slow they were. TV still hadn't completely severed the umbilical cord that attached it to 1940s radio, and television ads were as leisurely in 1963 as radio ads had been after the Second World War. It wasn't unusual in 1963 for a TV ad to go on for two full minutes. By 2005 that was long, long past. TV advertising time is so expensive in the 21st century, and people's attention spans are so short, that advertisers have basically 15 seconds to BLAST their message at you, and believe me, they do. It's one of the reasons I stopped watching TV."

"I almost hate to ask this, but...in 2010, is there still baseball?" Ward asks.

"You might wish there weren't," I reply. "Yes, there is still baseball. There is still Major League Baseball. In fact, this T-shirt I'm wearing, which I'm sure you wondered about? The San Diego Padres, who are currently in the Pacific Coast League, joined the National League as an expansion team in 1969. Since Mayfield is (I think) in Illinois, correct me if I'm wrong...(Ward and June both turn away, embarassed--they're not sure where Mayfield is, either), you probably never heard of the Padres. Well, Ward, if you're a baseball fan, you have heard of Ted Williams. He played for the San Diego Padres in the 1930s before he signed with the Red Sox. He's going to retire in 1960, and hit a home run in his last game, by the way.

"But baseball will look much different in the future. The 'reserve clause,' which has kept players in a state of virtual serfdom for more than 50 years, owned by their teams and unable to improve their lot, was abolished in 1974. After that, player salaries skyrocketed to such heights that fans began to complain. When a pitcher like Kevin Brown signs a contract with the Dodgers for $100 million --"

"$100 million?" Ward's eyeballs just about pop out. "Well, when they moved to Los Angeles last year, I could have predicted something like that would happen. But $100 million???"

"Keep in mind, Mr. Cleaver, that $100 million in the currency of the year 2000 is considerably less than $100 million dollars here in 1958," I say. "History, as Will Durant said, is inflationary. Money always gets cheaper. By 2000, a dollar won't buy what a quarter will now."

"Still. $100 million dollars?"

"Yes. Even in the year 2000, some eyebrows went up. But Brown's payoff was spread over a seven-year contract, and as so often happens when ballplayers sign these 'monster' contracts, he promptly disintegrated as a pitcher. The game remains the same, by which I mean there are still nine players on the field, and four bases 90 feet apart. But by 2011 there are 15 teams in each league, the American and the National, stretching all the way from Miami to Seattle. That means divisions, and playoffs. The World Series is still played where I come from -- in 2011 the St. Louis Cardinals beat the Texas Rangers -- but with all the additional teams and the layers of playoffs, the Series is played close to Halloween, rather than in early October as it always has been."

"Doesn't it get COLD?"

"Yes. Sometimes, when you're watching a World Series game on television in 2011, the camera will pan across the audience and they'll all be so bundled up you'd think you were watching a football game."

"And the players?"

"They put up with it. After all, they're being paid millions. And it is TV."

"Like this."

"Yeah."

Friday, December 9, 2011

Beware The Ear-Worm

I have but one request of Him, Her or It:

With death, deliver silence.

By which I mean, no more popular songs.

I'd like some peace and quiet. And by peace and quiet I mean, freedom from "the ear worm."

You who are under 45, and who go around with those idiot "pods" stuck in your ears all the time,
You're gonna get it, too.

I know.

We know. We old folks. All of us over 50, who grew up listening to the radio, are already getting it. And we didn't even have pods in our ears.


This is what we had, not ear pods. But when
it comes to getting a tune stuck in your head,
they were just as effective.


During the 1960s, the "transistor radio" was how many of us heard the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and...well,  Sopwith Camel and other third-rate acts.

Salvador Dali painted a picture in 1931 entitled The Persistence of Memory. Dali is not my favorite artist, but go look at this picture. You can Google it.


Every time the ear-worm gets into my head, I think of that painting.

And it doesn't take much, for anyone of my generation who has any memory at all, to fall victim to the ear-worm.

What is the ear-worm? It is a popular tune, or an advertising jingle, or anything else you heard a billion times many years ago, which comes back to haunt you. It gets stuck in your head, like a piece of what used to be called audiotape "in loop," and it plays, in your head, over and over and over and over and over until you're ready to scream.

Let me just tell you a little story, since I'm so full of stories (not to mention other things.)

This is just an example. I could tell you a thousand stories like this one. But this one relates to Tbilisi, where I am living at the moment, teaching English to Georgian children.

Last Tuesday one of my students, a precious little girl named Nino ("Nino" is a common name for girls in Georgia) handed me a tangerine. My kids are always handing me, and my fellow-teachers, candy, nuts, fruit and other small goodies. The kids here don't get a formal "lunch period;" they just kind of eat between classes, and they always seem to have snacks in their pockets.

Nino is one of my favorite people, and absolutely one of my worst students. She's phenomenally scatter-brained. Can't remember to do anything, including her homework.

Nino reminds me of Eva Gabor's character, Lisa Douglas, on the old TV show Green Acres. She's that ditsy. She knows, for example, the English words "cat" and "dog" perfectly well, but she will stare at a picture of a cat or a dog for ten minutes without being able to tell me what it is. Sometimes the switch just goes to the "off" position and she's temporarily dead from the neck up.

But Nino also has rosy cheeks and big blue eyes, and therefore I am as much her prisoner as I am the old guy who tut-tuts at her for not doing her homework.

Anyhow, Nino handed me a tangerine. They grow them here in Georgia. In fact Georgia produces a lot of fresh fruit, which somewhat surprises me because, although Georgia is nowhere near as cold as Russia, this is mountainous country and it does snow here. I'm from California, and tend to associate fresh fruit with warmer climates than Georgia's.

The tangerine Nino handed me was more green than orange, underripe and more tart than sweet. But I ate it, because I hadn't had any fresh fruit that day.

But the tangerine's ripeness and/or taste are not the reason I'm writing this. The reason I'm writing this is because of what the tangerine did to my head. (Never mind Nino; she messes with my head during every class.)

The persistence of memory. Key words will trigger things. I'm awful this way, maybe worse than most of my generation. But a key word, with me, is like punching a button. And then that tape starts to play. And won't shut up.

In this case it involved a perfectly awful, long-ago-forgotten popular song. The problem is, when I was a child in the 1960s, American AM radio had a format called Top 40, which meant they played the same 40 records over and over and over and over and over. Like my classmates (when I was Nino's age) I listened to Top 40 radio. Bad decision for later life. Because when you've heard a song (or for that matter, a commercial) 10,000 times in your childhood, there ain't no getting rid of it.




\The 1960s making fun of the 1930s. It was so hip.

Hence, when Nino handed me this tangerine, my stupid brain began playing Hello, Hello.

This was a dumb, campy record, recorded in 1966 by a group called Sopwith Camel.

Poking fun at the 1920s and 1930s was popular in the 1960s, when the 20's and 30's were considered hopelessly hokey by the twentysomethings of 1966 whose male members anyway were being drafted for, and didn't want to go to, Vietnam.

As part of their rebellion against their parents' generation, which as they saw it was sending them to Vietnam, the twentysomethings of that era considered their parents' music good mainly for laughs (laughter being the best form of defiance.)

In this spirit, Sopwith Camel (which never had another hit record than I knew of) recorded Hello, Hello.

The actual, original Sopwith Camel, by the way, was an airplane, as the above paper wrapper from a 1967 45-rpm pressing of this dumb song shows. It was a biplane, a two-winger, used by the British Royal Air Force as a fighter plane during World War I, the first war in which airplanes were used for military purposes.

For the LSD-and-pot crowd of 1966-67, World War I (or actually, anything prior to that crowd's own childhood) was the campy "olden days."

With tinny instrumental accompaniment and an equally tinny leading voice intended to imply the sound of the 78-rpm records of the 1920's, the song went like this:

Hello, hello,

I like your smile.

Hello, hello,

Shall we talk a while?

Would you like some of my tangerines?

I know I'd never treat you mean.



Cute, huh? Stupid is the word. But everyone was on drugs in those days, and it was a smash hit. When I was 11 years old, I heard this song maybe 34,756 times on Top 40 radio. Just goes to show you, it wasn't all Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane in those days. There was a lot of garbage too. Anybody remember the 1910 Fruitgum Company? They were to pop music what cotton candy is to protein.

And after Nino handed me that underripe tangerine last Tuesday, this damned song, Hello, Hello was stuck in my head for the rest of the afternoon. 45 years after it hit the airwaves. All because it had the word "tangerines" in it.

Memory is a devil. Against it, I have a mental device of which I make use regularly. I call it "The Block." "The Block" is an old jingle for Juicy Fruit chewing gum, dating from the 1970s. It's a round, you know, like Row, row, row your boat: "Let's pick a pack/Of Juicy Fruit gum,/Let's pick a pack/From the Juicy Fruit tree,/'Cause the flavor's so good/Ya gotta have some;/ Just pick a pack and you'll see... "Pick a pack! What a happy flavor! Juicy Fruit! What a happy feeling!" Then it starts again. I make use of The Block when I have something else that's driving me crazy, usually late at night when I'm trying to sleep.

In other words, I swap ear-worm for ear-worm, kind of like taking a shot of methadone instead of heroin.

The Juicy Fruit gum jingle is so old and familiar to me (it kept me awake itself in the 1970s) that I can invoke it to drive away another persistent tune, and then it just sort of goes away by itself. I need The Block because there are so many tunes that have bad mental associations for me, they will keep me awake for that reason alone. The Block is harmless. A chewing gum ad? How many bad memories can that invoke?

The thing about ear-worms is, you never know what's going to trigger one. It doesn't necessarily have to be the tune involved. Remember, last Tuesday I got stuck with Hello, Hello for an hour or two because one of my students had given me a tangerine.

A word, or a combination of words, can activate an ear-worm. For example, on a cold day someone might make a passing reference to lighting a fire, and the next thing you know, I'm hearing the Doors doing Light My Fire for the next couple of hours. Or I might overhear a woman (or a man) addressing her (or his) significant other as "babe," and for the next couple of hours I'm stuck with Sonny & Cher singing I Got You, Babe.

The film Ground Hog Day, starring Bill Murray, was a veritable metaphor for that one. The film's central joke is that his character is stuck in a sort of Twlight Zone, repeating the same day over and over until he can quit making the same stupid moral mistakes. This "day" always begins with his clock-radio extolling I Got You, Babe. The film was as funny as hell, but the joke drove me nuts because I could so readily relate to it.


And...it doesn't even have to be a song, or a word. It can be a bodily rhythm. My own breath, as I climb a flight of stairs, can invoke something like, say, the second movement of Beethoven's 7th Symphony. "DA-da-da-DA-DA, DA-da-da-DA, DA, DA, da-da-DA-DA, DA, da-da-DA...and the next thing you know, for 90 minutes I'm hearing the slow movement of Beethoven's 7th. Or the rhythm of my feet climbing those same stairs might bring to my head Paul McCartney singing "One-Two-Three-Four, can I have a little more..." Then I'm stuck with that for a while.

If this happens during daylight hours, when I have things like teaching, shopping and worrying to occupy my mind, I can usually just live with the ear-worm until some random thought or occupation drives it away.

But if it happens after lights-out, if one of these tunes from the previous 16 hours of wakefulness comes back to haunt me, and rob me of sleep, well, that's when I invoke The Block: "Let's pick a pack/Of Juicy Fruit Gum..."

That'll drive Beethoven, Sonny & Cher or even the Beatles away.

For me, it works better than Nam-yo-ho-ren-ge-kyo for making my mind a complete, numbed blank.

Well, there you go. The Buddhists have their traditional chants; I have a chewing gum ad.

Summus quod summus. We are who we are.

And we hear what we hear. Walt Whitman heard America singing, or so he said.

I'm surprised it didn't drive him nuts. It would have me. In fact, listening to America's damned singing, especially on the radio, very nearly has driven me nuts.


But I have my Juicy Fruit gum jingle. I wonder what Walt used?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Of Murderers and Marketing


 In this photograph, I am standing in the very room in Gori, Georgia, a small city about an hour from Tbilisi, in which Josif Vissarionitch Djughashvili, known to the world as Stalin, was born. It's a tiny room, "humble" as we used to say: just a couple of small tables, a chair and a bed. When little Joey Djugashvili, whose resume ultimately included a real eye-grabber --  the slaughter of millions of people -- was born in 1878, his family occupied two rooms of this house. The rest of it was rented by another family. The other room is as tiny as this one -- probably not 100 square feet in all. We asked the tour guide how the Djugashvili family heated this place. Apparently behind me and to my left, there used to be a stove in the wall. It wouldn't have had to be very big. I've lived in two-room apartments bigger than this place. There is a locked-up working area down in the "basement" (we joked among ourselves that it must be "the dungeon") where Josif's father worked as, what was it, a shoemaker? Something appropriately "umble," as Uriah Heep kept saying in David Copperfield until I was ready to scream.

Now, directly behind this house is the Stalin Museum proper. It's huge, and on a December day, as cold as a mausoleum inside. My friends Dan, Joe, Hannah and I signed up for the tour, even coughing up the extra five GEL they charge for a walk-through of Stalin's private (and you can bet your ass bulletproof) railroad car, which is also on the site.

Hannah and me, sitting on the porch
of the original Stalingrad.

At the current moment in history, Russians are not especially popular in Georgia. The two countries fought a one-week war against each other in 2008, and some of the bloodiest fighting took place in Gori. In fact when my friends and I paused on the street to take our bearings on our way to the Stalin Musum, we found ourselves alongside a building that still had bullet holes in it.

(I don't mean to boast, but that wasn't the first time I'd seen something like that. Many years ago I visited East Berlin, before they took the wall down. Some of the oldest buildings in the city, the ones closest to the wall, still had bullet holes from World War II in them. Still, there was something a tad eerie about these Gori bullet holes -- they were much more recent.)

Popular or not, the Russians have a cultural stake in Georgia, and vice-versa. Stalin was Georgian as everyone knows; our tour guide told us that all of his life he spoke Russian with a Georgian accent. He was fond of Georgian cooking -- as everyone who has lived here for any period of time becomes -- and his favorite wine was Georgian. (I've tasted it -- it's red, and quite sweet.)

And the Georgians have gone to some trouble to preserve the memory and memorabilia of one of the twentieth century's greatest mass killers, a man who, it has been speculated, was responsible for even more deaths than Hitler. (But probably not more than Mao Tse-Tung; my guess would be that Mao takes the prize Lamborghini in the dead-body sweepstakes, but we'll never know, will we? Well, whether he had to settle for the second-place Jeep Cherokee in the killer sweepstakes or not, Stalin was right up there with them. A real pro.)

Just as an hors d'oeuvre, he almost managed to lose World War II by killing off all of his own best generals in a paranoid hissy-fit just before the Nazis invaded the USSR in 1941. I love irony: Hitler's invasion of Russia violated his 1938 "non-aggression" deal with Stalin. Just goes to show you what "deals" struck between the likes of Stalin and Hitler are worth. Kind of like Dutch Schultz and Al Capone agreeing to stay off each other's turf.


Josif Vissarionovich Stalin, (1878-1953) The Soviet
Union's legendary "Man of Steel." (Actually, he had
skin as thin as rice paper: poet Osip Mandelstam once
compared Stalin's mustache to a cockroach, and died in
a Siberian labor camp for saying it.)
 Or, if you prefer, like the two characters in Antonio Prohias' classic Spy Vs. Spy, a favorite MAD Magazine cartoon of my 1960s childhood. On the one hand you had the White Spy, in white coat, white hat and sunglasses; and then you had the Black Spy, in black coat, black hat and sunglasses. The two of them sneaked around some place with potted palms called "Embassy," pulling violent practical jokes on each other.  Wordless. Pointless. Just two stupid government hirelings taking turns blowing each other up.

Hitler and Stalin, waltzing.
 
And it was a scream.

 Actually, historians could, and have, written whole "problem" volumes about the 1938 Non-Aggression Pact between Germany and the USSR. Hitler agreed to let Stalin grab off a chunk of Poland in return for not being interfered with elsewhere. Stalin was "orthodox" enough a communist to believe that his true enemy was England, not Germany, so he trusted Hitler, who turned out to be as trustworthy as...well, Hitler.

Stalin was also "orthodox" enough a communist to believe that anyone who disagreed with his interpretation of Holy Writ, e.g. Marx and Lenin, should be exterminated. He was his own Inquisition and his own Secular Arm.

He proceeded to exterminate several million people in the name of The People. 

Stalin's personal masterpiece in the "killer" department had to be the time he created an artificial "famine" in the Ukraine in order to force people to relocate elsewhere and to rid himself of the so-called "kulaks," whom he had created, by the way. Go, Joe, go. Pile up them bodies for the Revolution, baby. Kill millions. Remember, it's for La Causa. Someday they'll build a museum to you.

They did!

The Stalin Museum in Gori is huge, as I said. Here is one of its rooms:

And that's just one.  The walls of this particular room are lined with blown-up photographs of various types, and the museum does have a plethora of photos, ancient and not-so-ancient, chronicling Stalin's life from early childhood to his death in 1953.


Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) Stalin's fellow
sociopath. Can you imagine these two
characters dancing together? Legend has it
that after their 1938 Non-Aggression Pact
was signed, Hitler and Stalin waltzed
each other around the room. Hitler
promptly invaded Russia.
Other halls in the museum house every kind of Stalin memorabilia you can think of, from his uniforms and pipes to his private desk to the original Non-Aggression Pact with Germany signed in 1938. (You might be surprised -- for a document which had such profound ramifications for history, it's not much bigger than a five-by-eight index card.) 




Who would ever have thought that I, an "underfed, short-haired leaping gnome" from California, would find myself standing a foot-and-a-half from Stalin's pipes?

One of the things that made our tour of the Stalin Museum in Gori so much fun last (very chilly) Saturday was the felicitous accident of our "tour-fellows." There were four of us in my group: Hannah, who is from St. Louis and made a big point of telling me that I'm exactly her father's age (thank you, dear); Joe, who's from Washington, D.C.; Dan, who's from Britain, and myself, who's from nowhere.

But we were joined in our tour of the main museum by "Martin," "Thomas" and "Paul," three guys from Poland who evidently all work for the same company: they were wearing matching red windbreakers with their company logo emblazoned over the pocket.

Martin, Thomas and Paul "made" this tour for me. Why? Because nobody, and I mean nobody hates Stalin like the Poles do. All through the tour these three guys kept making snide remarks that essentially added up to "Fuck Stalin." They spoke passable English, so we were able to share in their black humor. Personally I was about to double-up laughing. There's no reason why I should make any secret of the fact that I don't hold Stalin in very high esteem. Few people outside of the late Pablo Neruda do, or would own up to it if they did. (Still, there are those flowers on his grave in Moscow. Go figure. Provided you speak Russian to them -- even if you speak it with a Georgian accent, as Stalin did -- the more you kick the snot out of the Russians, the more they love you. I don't understand it.)

Speaking of the Stalin Museum, I never cease to be amazed at the complete lack of entrepreneurial spirit here in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. We lined up, Soviet-style, to buy our little paper tickets for this tour (10 GEL for the main tour, five more for "The wagon" -- Stalin's private railroad car.) That was it, folks. No gift shop, no "Stalin T-shirts," no bumper stickers reading "Stalin Rocks" or "I Red heart Gori." There was one tiny enclosed area where you could buy overpriced bottles of The Killer's favorite wine and a few other such items, but it was locked up tight.

Somebody is missing an opportunity here. Where's the Stalin Disco? Where's the fast-food stand hawking "GULAG-Burgers?" Where's the amusement ride you can enter for a few GEL and get to experience a KGB interrogation of your very own? They do have a fake prison cell in Stalin's fake "underground office," but where's the audioanimatronic "prisoner" moaning and groaning and demanding his rights? Come on, folks, this could be Gori's version of Knott's Berry Farm, but it's nothing except a cold, old museum, and by the way, the second, and I mean the second our tour was concluded, our tour guide disappeared like Barbara Eden going back into her bottle in I Dream of Jeannie. I mean, she was gone. She didn't even wave bye-bye. "I'm done with this group -- I'm scramming for where it's warm," she must have thought, and she was gone.

Too bad, she might have gotten a tip from us. But that's typical of this part of the world. These people are so accustomed, even two decades after the death of the Soviet Union, to thinking socialisme, that they don't even wait around for tips. "I did my job, I'm gone." And they vanish. 


Stalin's private train car. Don't need to tell you
it was bulletproof, do I?

At first, I was inclined to pass on "the wagon," as the museum called it. Who needed to see a damn railroad car? And besides they charged an extra five GEL for that; five lari will get you two beers in this country -- no, three, unless you're paying overhead at Le Cafe Snotface.

But the rest of my group wanted to see "the wagon," so I plunked down my extra five GEL and came along, (as did our three Polish friends, wisecracking all the way.)

Some of Stalin's biographers will tell you that he was a frugal man who lived simply. Well, you know, if your hobby is having people like Traicho Kostov beaten to death, how much luxury do you need? But I can tell you in all confidence that Stalin's private railroad car was just about the cutting edge of luxury for railroad service of the 1930s. Okay, the President of the United States has Air Force One, and I've seen films of the inside of it -- as airplanes go, it's pretty luxurious. So I suppose the Head Guy is entitled to travel in style, and of course in the 1930s nobody flew unless they were in a big hurry; everyone traveled by train. And yes, the Soviet Union did include vast distances. You might spend a week on a train, maybe more if you were going to Vladivostok.

But Stalin's private railroad car had amenities no other Soviet citizen would dream of in the 1930s: kitchen, sleeping quarters for himself and guests, a conference room, (air-conditioned! How many railroad cars were air-conditioned in the 1930s?)


But now a word about Stalin's private room.

Now, there's only so much you can do with a train -- you have two rails and a few feet of width. No room for a movie theater there, although if anyone could have insisted, it would have been Stalin (and he was a film buff, as people like Sergei Eisenstein discovered to their ultimate chagrin.) And it may be admitted that Stalin's private room on Stalin's private train is rather spartan as compartments for Tsars go: there's a bed, a desk ... oh, yes, and a bathroom.


A few years ago I worked for an investment banker In Washington, D.C., Ralph Taylor, who was almost as big a megalomaniac as Stalin. Ralph's office had its own private bathroom where Ralph could haul his fat butt in its $2,000 Armani suit and deposit his royal turds in complete, royal privacy.


I couldn't resist: here I am
sitting on Stalin's private toilet in Stalin's private
railroad car. I was the only one who got this picture.
Right after Hannah took it, the tour guide yelled
at us to knock if off. "Have more respect
for the great killer's ass!" (You could almost hear her
thinking that.)


Stalin, too, insisted upon The Royal Shitter. Stalin's private railroad car includes, as well as Stalin's private room, Stalin's private bathroom. And I don't just mean a john, either. This facility came complete with bathtub. Stalin could take a bath on his own train. (I wonder what happened when they went around a curve or up a hill? Did Stalin have the curve or the hill punished?)

When I poked my nose into Stalin's private compartment on Stalin's private railroad car, naturally I couldn't help but notice that, just off to the left, was Stalin's private bathroom.

"Hannah! Quick, come here!" (Hannah had the camera.) "I want you to take my picture sitting on Stalin's toilet!"

"Oh, beautiful!" she said, swiveling into position next to the sink. It was pretty snug in there; fortunately the bathtub had created a couple of extra square feet of space. (In the photo, you can see the edge of the tub next to my knee. They boarded it over, presumably so people ((like our Polish friends)) wouldn't spit in it.)
Hannah got the photo you see above. But I was the only one who had the honor of having his picture taken sitting on Stalin's toilet. As soon as the tour guide tumbled to what we were up to, she yelled at us and said she didn't want anyone else taking that particular picture. So that was the end of that. But I got mine, a souvenir better than any "Uncle Joe" T-shirt could possibly be.

The moment we all stepped off the back of the train, our tour guide vanished, as I said before. I mean she was gone.  Yes, it was chilly that afternoon in Gori, and I'm sure she wanted to get back to some place that had a stove. But mostly I think she was just sick of all of us: Poles bad-mouthing Stalin, Americans fooling around having their pictures taken on his toilet...who needs this?, she must have thought.


And she vanished in one quick hurry.

Our Polish friends invited us to join them in climbing up to the ancient stone fortress that overlooks Gori. Many Georgian cities have such fortresses -- Tbilisi does, too -- but Hannah was famished, so we decided to peel off and go have lunch. We climbed up to the fortress later ourselves, through the snow, and got some great pictures from up there despite the icy wind. Unfortunately our Polish friends were gone by then. Too bad; given how they obviously felt about Stalin, it might have been fun to watch one of them climb up on the parapet and "moon" the entire city of Gori.


However, given what I'd already done that afternoon, "mooning" Gori would have been a bit of an anticlimax, don't you think?

Monday, November 28, 2011

My Father Plays Dominos Better Than Yours

In memory of Svetlana Alliuyeva, 1926-2011


The idea behind this ancient joke about playing dominoes was to ridicule the Latin mass: "My father plays dominos better than your father plays dominos."

Get it? You will if you grew up Catholic in the pre-Vatican II era, that is to say, pre-1963, the year in which the liturgy went from Latin to the vernacular.

"Domino," "Domini," etc. Latin words for God.  Yuk-yuk-yuk.


Remember Dr. Strangelove? I sure do.
But for the moment, I'm not thinking about dominos in terms of mocking the Catholic liturgy.

I'm thinking of them in terms of what used to be called "the domino theory."

Now, once again, for anyone reading this who happens to be under 40, (or maybe even over 40) I feel constrained to explain what the "domino theory" was.

The "domino theory" dominated (no pun intended) U.S. foreign policy, particularly in southeast Asia, for more than a generation.

In a news conference in 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower said,  "Finally, you have broader considerations that might follow what you would call the 'falling domino' principle. You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences."

The idea was that, the Communists having succeeded by 1949 in taking over China, if somebody (the U.S.) didn't stop them, well, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Burma, India and ultimately, maybe even Australia might follow.

Based largely upon the "falling domino" theory, not to mention George Kennan's famous "Long Telegram" sent to the U.S. State Department from the American embassy in Moscow in February, 1946, (it was originally classified "Secret," but you can Google it -- it was declassified years ago) the United States embarked upon its famous policy of "containment" toward Communism. The idea was "Don't let Communism spread any further than it already has."

This policy had profound consequences for the U.S. and the world. Korea, Vietnam ... United States foreign adventures going all the way up to Grenada in 1983 stemmed from the "domino" theory, which in turn had its roots in the notion of "containment."

Ain't it just too funny for words, the way history sometimes plays tricks on us?

Well, maybe "funny" isn't the right term, seeing as how the years between 1946 and 1991 saw so many thousands and thousands of lives lost in the name of either stopping Communism or promulgating it.

But then again, didn't Josef Stalin himself say "One death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic?"

Why do I say "funny?" Because what ultimately happened was the opposite of what we were all told to lie awake in our beds being afraid of. (That is when we weren't being commanded to dive under our school desks and "take cover" from a "pretend" nuclear attack.)

Would a school desk have saved me when my school, and my city itself, were being vaporized? I never asked and they never explained.

Many years later I discussed these issues with a Russian friend.

She informed me that in her own childhood, Moscow schoolchildren had been subjected to similar rituals, only they didn't involve desks. Chula Vista, California, where I grew up, had no subway system. Most American cities didn't, which was why we were always being told to "Duck and Cover." But Moscow did have a subway system. Hence, rather than being ordered to duck under their desks, Moscow children were herded down into their local Metro stations in "drills" similar to the ones I remember from my childhood.

There, safe in the deep subway tubes, Soviet children would huddle against imaginary American missiles.

We will now pause for laughter all around.

Jokes about nuclear war aside, it slowly became clear, as the Cold War dragged on, that Soviet "hegemonism," as it was referred to a generation ago, contained the seeds of its own destruction.

Empire-building only works until you can no longer maintain the empire, as the Romans, the British and ultimately, the Soviets learned.
Was the principal of my school really
stupid enough to think that making me
stick my butt under my desk was going
to save me from this?

But in 1954, who knew? Historians might have been able to make an educated guess here and there. But amid the hurlyburly of fear, loathing, accusation, counter-accusation, coup, war, riot and all that other fun stuff, who was going to listen to the likes of Thucydides, Edward Gibbon or Arnold Toynbee? (Adlai Stevenson might have, but America seldom elects bald men as presidents. Eisenhower got a "pass" only because he was already a war hero.)

So the nations went at it. A war here, a war there. Under Harry Truman (whom Gore Vidal credits with creating the American National Security State), The Office of Strategic Services, a relic of World War II, morphed into the Central Intelligence Agency, which then mestastasized into every corner of the earth. And then of course you had Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. Dien Bien Phu. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. My Lai. The "Paris Peace Talks."

The "Us versus Them" idea was everywhere. Even in 1979, when the Khomeni-ites overthrew the Shah of Iran, some people in America thought the Soviets were behind it.

When Pope John Paul II, the former Polish cardinal Karol Woytija, was shot in 1981, some people thought the Soviets were behind that. (They may indeed have been; it was no secret that Moscow was not happy about a cardinal from an eastern bloc country having been made pope in 1978.)  But the counterintelligence trail in the pope's shooting was such a mess of "spaghetti code," as software engineers call it, that a direct connection to the Kremlin could never be established. In any case, the pope survived that attack. And forgave the shooter, by the way. Visited him in jail. The shooter's name was Mehmet Ali Agca. He was Bulgarian. Bulgaria was a Soviet client state. ???

Beyond that, well, check with the CIA. They probably don't know any more than you do. Or if they do, they're not telling.

Anybody remember Korean Airlines Flight 007?

August 31, 1983: a KAL Boeing 747 shot down, with 269 civilians aboard, and killed, after it accidentally strayed into Soviet air space.

A total, disastrous screwup.

Afterward, embarrassed and unable to come up with a plausible explanation for why they had done such a hideous thing, the Russians lamely tried to claim that this civilian airliner was on a "spy mission."

Yeah, right. With U.S. spy satellites watching the USSR 24/7 from space, and the U.S. Strategic Air Command buzzing the perimeters of that country around the clock, why on earth would a civilian 747 be sent on a "spy mission?"  As the Germans say, Ausgeschlossen.

Americans were sold the reality of a "struggle" that was really just a big, murderous game. And I don't just mean the hoi polloi, either. So-called "intellectuals" among my parents' generation, and even my own, were among the most convinced of the believers (and many of them were of course cheerleading for the "other side.")

Fidel Castro's PR machine, for example, hoodwinked much of America into believing that his "revolution" was the glorious wave of the future, and not the dawn of shitty manufacture, deteriorating infrastructure, political intolerance and third-rate pizza that it really was. The young Bob Dylan, during his "protest" period, admiringly tipped his hat to Castro in Who Killed Davey Moore? A generation of willingly-suckered American hippies volunteered, loudly, to go to Cuba and "help with the sugar-cane harvest."

Oh, gosh, how touching! How Romantic! Jean-Jacques Rousseau must have been masturbating in his grave!

Damn sugar cane, by the way! It ruined the Cuban soil for tobacco. Cuban cigars (cigars being for years the only thing Cuba made better than the rest of the world) turned to shit. As a cigar lover, I really resent that, although as an American, my opportunities to get my hands on Cuban Cohibas have admittedly been few and far between.

Capitalism, we were told in my youth, was in retreat. The triumph of Marxist socialism was as inevitable as the cockeyed "laws of history" that Karl Marx had cooked up in the British Museum a century earlier had said it was. Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, as stupid as he was brilliant, jumped up and down cheering like a fat little girl. Neruda loved Stalin. That's because he never met him.

History has no "laws." History is, as James Joyce had one of his characters say, "the nightmare from which I'm trying to awaken."

Nightmares don't have "laws." Sorry, they just don't.

Still, Anthony Burgess, one of the most gifted English novelists of his generation (and also a talented composer of music, by the way), was among those most thoroughly taken in.  Burgess so fervently believed that the future of the western world was fated to be "Soviet" that in 1962 he published A Clockwork Orange, an appalling vision of what that future, specifically on "Airstrip One," might look like.

("Airstrip One," for those of you who don't read -- and I'm afraid that in 2011 that's most people -- is  the name George Orwell gave "England"  in his equally apocalyptic 1948 "prophecy," 1984.)

The 20th century was so tough on prophets (With one exception, as we shall see.) That's really what this essay is about.

In Burgess' novel, the young street punks of futuristic "London" speak among themselves a patois consisting entirely of words borrowed from Russian. "Nadsat," as it was called. Burgess assumed that Russia was going to dominate the future, linguistically anyhow.

In 1962, Anthony Burgess had the
street thugs in his novel A Clockwork
Orange speaking bastardized Russian. By
2011, just about nobody in the world was
even interested in learning Russian anymore.

Funny, funny. Here I am in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, teaching children to speak English. Why? Because the government of this former Soviet republic wants tomorrow's Georgians to speak either Georgian or English. Preferably both.

But whether they speak Russian or not is a matter of relative indifference to the current Georgian regime. Schools here do still teach Russian, but Russian does not have a high priority. English does. That's why they're flying in teachers to teach it.

Oh, my. Irony is oozing out of the woodwork.

In fairness to Burgess, the publication of  A Clockwork Orange coincided with the zenith of Soviet global power and influence. For a few moments there, it really did look like the Russians were "winning."

1962 was high noon for the Soviets. They did indeed seem to be "on the march" that year. They had established a client state only 90 miles from Florida, they were staging missile parades every May, and the previous year they had put the first man into space. They were building Communism! As the Kremlin's favorite poetaster-toady Yevgeny Yevtushenko put it, "The world marches forward/To Lenin...to Lenin." (Yeah, yeah, yeah. Where are you now, Gene? Dead, maybe?  Hiding in Oklahoma? If you are dead, you ain't buried at the Kremlin. That honor went to, among others, a moronic American journalist named John Reed, who didn't understand that joining the True Believers usually means asking for trouble.)

Ironically enough, two other events of that year, 1962, ultimately spelled the Soviet Union's doom. One was a global crisis, the other, a literary event.

In that year, Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschchev, responding to the placement of American missiles in Turkey, proposed to place Soviet missiles in Cuba.

U.S. President John F. Kennedy said "No, you don't," and for a few tense hours in that autumn of '62, the two superpowers, USA and USSR, seemed to be on the brink of nuclear war.

Then Kruschchev blinked. The Soviet missiles bound for Cuba never got there.

And by the way, that was the end of Kruschchev. Less than two years later, the Soviet politboro, viewing the Cuban missile crisis as a defeat for the USSR, threw Kruschchev out of power and replaced him as premier with the more hard-line Leonid Brezhnev. (Kruschchev more-or-less died in exile, writing his memoirs at his dacha.)

But the same year as the Cuban missile crisis, 1962, a small literary earthquake happened in the USSR. As part of a nationwide campaign to discredit his predecessor Stalin, Kruschchev had permitted the publication of Alexander Isaievich Solzhenitsyn's One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovitch, a brief-but-devastating portrait of the Siberian labor camps which had been established under Vladmir Ilyich Lenin, but had really flourished under Stalin.

When Solzhenitsyn's novella appeared in the prestigious Moscow literary journal Novy Mir, the entire issue sold out in a few hours.

Fine, for the moment.

But once Kruschchev had been removed from power in the wake of the Cuban missile affair, the limited bit of freedom that he had seen fit to allow the Soviet people was gone. For a long time to come.

With the so-called "thaw" of the Kruschchev years suddenly over, and a new crew of hard-liners (read: the KGB) running the show in the Kremlin, thus began what the Soviets themselves would years later call "The Period of Stagnation." Brezhnev presumably still had all of his marbles when he was installed as premier in 1964, but by the time he died in November, 1982, he was so far gone in the head that jokes about him were being whispered in every Soviet kitchen (as long as the radio was on to discourage the KGB from listening in.)

And Brezhnev was the perfect metaphor for his country. An orgy of oil-based military spending had accompanied the Brezhnev years. The USSR had enough missiles, tanks and nuclear submarines to blow up the world 50 times.

What it didn't have were luxuries like bread and toilet paper.

In fairness to the USSR, the United States also had enough missiles, tanks and nuclear submarines to blow up the world 50 times.

What the United States had that the Soviet Union didn't have was plenty of bread and toilet paper. And fruit and vegetables. And meat. And milk. And butter. And cheese. And automobiles. And stereos. And TV sets. And clothing stores. And single-family homes. And on and on and on.

And the rest of the world gradually woke up to this fact:  the Soviets were nothing but a bunch of well-armed losers.

When Soviet power failed to subdue the 1979 uprising of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, people began to wonder whether the mighty Soviet empire was as mighty as it claimed to be.

There were two operative principles involved in Afghanistan. (1) Tanks, the USSR's usual means of enforcing its will, are just about useless in mountainous country, which Afghanistan is, and (2) The mujahideen were being supplied with Stinger missiles, for use against those Soviet tanks, by the CIA.

By the time Brezhnev cooled in the fall of '82, people were already beginning to refer to the USSR as "Burkino Faso with missiles," i.e. the world's most heavily-armed poor country.
Leonid Brezhnev, (1906- 1982)
poster boy for hardened arteries, in more
ways than one.

In the United States, except among the most rock-ribbed members of the political right, this idea had been a commonplace for years. In 1975 the CBS Television Network broadcast (briefly) a "summer replacement" series (as they were called in those days), Ivan The Terrible. Starring the late Lou Jacobi, Ivan The Terrible was a situation comedy about a Soviet family living in a Moscow apartment. Its portrayal of life in the Soviet hell house, warts and all, was so funny and so accurate that the Soviet embassy in Washington, D.C. protested and the show was yanked off the air.

And it had been just the previous year, 1974, that the inevitable "showdown" between Brezhnev and Solzhenitsyn, who had been on a collision course for years, finally happened. Solzhenitsyn had been secretly busy for those same years on a monster work of nonfiction, The Gulag Archipelago, which documented the horrors of Stalin's labor camps in three devastating volumes. A copy of Solzhenitsyn's manuscript was leaked to the KGB. The jig, as they used to say, was up. Solzhenitsyn and Brezhnev played their final two chess moves: to cover himself, Solzhenitsyn authorized the publication of The Gulag Archipelago abroad. In response to that, Brezhnev had Solzhenitsyn stripped of his Soviet citizenship and exiled.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, (1918-2008)
Brezhnev's pet headache.

Checkmate? Not quite. Brezhnev knew perfectly well that if he had had Solzhenitsyn killed, he would be buying trouble. Solzhenitsyn had won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970. He was "high-profile," and a hero to many dissidents.To have him "disappear" would have created a martyr.

Brezhnev knew that, so he went for the "other" form of retribution familiar to his fellow Tsars: exile. Brezhnev figured if he just kicked Solzhenitsyn out of the country and had his name erased from the history books, that would be the end of that.

Well, it wasn't quite. Solzhenitsyn spent the next 20 years in Cavenish, Vermont, USA, writing, writing, and writing when he wasn't coming out of his cubbyhole every now and then to make a speech somewhere, usually vilifying the west for not being more vigilant against Communism. And Solzhenitsyn outlived Brezhnev, the sweetest form of revenge (just ask my late father.)

In fact Solzhenitsyn outlived Brezhnev by more than a quarter-century. And lived to perform what he saw as his life's mission: overseeing the destruction of that very police state which Brezhnev had been entrusted by the politboro in 1964 to preserve.

By the time of Brezhnev's death in November, 1982, the USSR was in big trouble and it knew it. It couldn't feed itself. It was buying grain from the United States. It continued to spend billions of rubles propping up the network of eastern European puppet states in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Rumania, etc. which Stalin had bullied Roosevelt and Churchill into accepting at Yalta in 1945, but it was becoming increasingly clear that, like the Romans, the Russians could no longer afford to be an empire. The Romans eventually ran out of the gold that kept their empire hale; the Russians, by the early 1980s, were running out of the oil money that kept them mighty.

What to do? Stall, for now. When Brezhnev died, he was replaced with Yuri Andropov, a sclerotic KGB boss whom everyone knew wasn't going to live much longer. He didn't. Andropov promptly died, and was replaced with Konstantin Chernenko, another sclerotic KGB boss who wasn't going to live much longer, and everyone knew it.

And since I began this essay with a reference to the Roman Catholic Church, let me mention here that the politboro, between 1983 and 1985, was doing precisely the same thing that the Church's college of cardinals had done repeatedly down the centuries. When a pope died, and the cardinals couldn't agree on an appropriate successor, they would deliberately choose a cardinal who had one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel, figuring that by the time he died, they would have found someone they liked better.

Before Pope John Paul II, (who pretty much eclipsed all of his predecessors in the popularity department) one of the 20th Century's most beloved and remembered popes was John XXIII (born Angelo Giuseppi Roncalli.) His papacy ran from 1958 to 1963.

John XXIII was no dummy. Before he became pope, he was perfectly aware of this tradional "wait-'til-he-croaks" practice among his fellow cardinals. When he was picked to succeed Pius XII in 1958, 77-year old Cardinal Roncalli, now Pope John XXIII, famously remarked, "We are at the end of our rope and at the top of the heap."

The politboro borrowed a page from the college of cardinals' playbook. It ran through Andropov and Chernenko, and then decided, two years or so later, on Mikhail Gorbachev, an unknown agricultural bureaucrat from somewhere out in the sticks.

All of us over age 40 remember what happened next. Unlike his geriatric predecessors, Gorbachev knew that a few things had to change. One of them was Moscow's insistence upon central control of everything across 11 time zones.

Uh-uh. Didn't work, and Gorbachev knew it. So he embarked upon a program he called Perestroika, ("Restructuring"), which attempted to spread the decision-making power around a bit wider.

Another ongoing Soviet problem was that everybody was so scared of his or her boss that nobody wanted to blow the whistle on waste, fraud and abuse. Gorby tried to change that, too, with a program called Glasnost ("Openness") which encouraged workers to step up and speak out where they saw problems.

But all of this was window-dressing. The rot went much deeper than that. Gorbachev was like a kitten picking at a ball of yarn. Once it started to unravel, there was no stopping it.

Sooner or later, non-Russian republics in the USSR, which had been coerced by Stalin into joining the Soviet Union in the first place, were going to get the scent in the wind and start agitating for more freedom.

And then, when they got a little freedom, start agitating for independence.

Meanwhile, along came SDI. The Strategic Defense Initiative, or "Star Wars" as it was derisively referred to in the news media, was the last nail in the USSR's coffin. President Ronald Reagan aggressively pursued the goal of a computer-based defense system that could "zap" incoming Soviet missiles with lasers.

The Soviets screamed bloody murder -- for 40 years, Mutually Assured Destruction had been the lynchpin of so-called World Peace (through innumerable brushfire wars.)  Now Reagan was threatening to upset that apple cart.

It was poker, pure and simple. SDI may have been, in reality, an unattainable engineering feat, but the Russians didn't know that. Reagan even offered to "share" SDI technology with them -- "Here, we're building this thing, and we'll show you how to build it too." But Reagan and his British counterpart Margaret Thatcher knew exactly what they were up to. They knew that the Russians were every bit as capable (or incapable) of building a missile defense system as were the Americans, the British or anyone else. Nothing wrong with Soviet science and technology; they were among the world's best.

What the Soviets didn't have was the money. Reagan knew that, and he used that leverage to make Gorbachev deal with him.

Then Boris Yeltsin came along, saw an opportunity to get Gorbachev out of the way and scoop up all the chips in Moscow for himself, and he took it. What did Yeltsin care if the death of the Soviet Union was necessary to put him at the "top of the heap" in the Russian Federation? He assumed the role of "hero" when an unsuccesful coup was staged against Gorbachev in 1991, then started playing his own cards. Some say Yeltsin negotiated a secret deal with some of the republics -- don't stand between me and what I want, and you'll get independence. (Google the "Belovezha Accords" if you want to know more about this.)

On Christmas Day, 1991, I was sitting in my living room in Abidjan, the capital of the west African nation of Ivory Coast, DX'ing around on the shortwave radio for some news. I heard on the BBC that the Soviet Union was no more. Gorbachev, after resisting the unraveling of the ball of yarn for several months, had finally faced the fact that he no longer had a country to be the leader of. The USSR was as dead as the dodo bird. With a minimum of ceremony, Gorbachev went on Soviet television, made a farewell speech, wished everyone good luck, and went off to write his memoirs.

No nuclear holocaust, no Clash of the Titans, no WWIII. All those things that had been predicted with such dire hand-wringing when I was growing up had turned out to be...well, nothing more than second-rate television. In 1983 the American media whooped up a massive brouhaha about a made-for-TV movie called The Day After. The subject of this film was the nuclear war which was supposedly inevitable if America didn't stop refusing to appease the Soviets. This TV movie got more press build-up than anything I could remember since the Beatles' first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. (in 1964, the same year Brezhnev came to power in Moscow.)

The media really wanted everyone to watch this film. They were breathless about it. Nuclear war! Coming next! It's five minutes to twelve!

Reviews of The Day After were lukewarm at best.

In the end, it was just another low-budget movie. It sank like a stone and was never watched again. Everyone, including the TV critics, yawned and then channel-surfed away to watch The Love Boat.

Say goodnight, Gracie.