I just finished…

Shadow Country by Peter Mathiessen. Set in southwest Florida, when it remained America’s Last Frontier, it is the tale of E.J. Watson, who loomed so demonic to his neighbors, that in 1910 twenty of them gunned him down. No one was prosecuted.

The book has an interesting history. Mathiessen first wrote it as a 1500 page novel, which was unpublishable. He then broke in into three 500 page novels, which were published over nine years. Still dissatisfied, he rewrote them into one 900+ page novel, which won the National Book Award (his third) in 2008.

The entire book is suffused with evil. Murder. Rape. Racism. Environmental degradation. Obliteration of souls. There are indications (strong ones) of this being Mathiessen’s view of capitalism, of it being how he sees America. No counter-arguments are presented to these views. There is no hope of man being capable of more than Mathiessen allows him on his pages.

Mathiessen’s life was an interesting one too. He served in World War ii. He was an expatriate writer in Paris with James Baldwin and William Styron. He started “The Paris Review,” with George Plympton, which, Mathiessen later revealed, was a helpful cover for his work for the CIA. LSD eventually led him to Zen and he became a Buddhist priest.

Where, I wondered, in “Shadow Country” was the detachment I associated with Buddhism? Where was the rose that grew from this garbage? His biography, I think, should be an interesting one.

Seeing Here

A few years ago, when asked my three favorite books, I replied The Recognitions, for its near opaque literary excellence, A Man With A Maid, in case I was alone on a desert island and in need of entertainment, and, for spiritual and moral guidance, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of What You See. After the most recent election returns, I began it again.

That book, by Lawrence Weschler, (Univ. of California Press) is a study of the visual artist Robert Irwin. It opens with Irwin taking Weschler on a tour of Los Angeles, where the artist had grown up. The adolescence the 1940s had provided him, as Irwin recalls, was composed of hot rods, gambling, dance contests, and girls. When Weschler posits that a reason for this grand time was that Irwin and his friends were about to be engulfed by WW ii, Irwin replies absolutely not.

“‘Look,'” he says, “‘Look at it here. Look at how it is: calm, sunny, the palm trees. What is there to get all fucking upset about?… This is reality. In other words, the war was not reality. The war wasn’t here. The war was someplace else. So any ideas you had about the war were all things you manufactured in your head from newspapers and that… (T)his was reality; this was my reality right here.'”

The morning after the election, I skimmed the newspaper, not lingering until I reached Sports. At the café, I hooked onto Pandora (John Coltrane) and shyed away from conversation. At the health club, I clicked “TV Off” while on the cardio-machines, so no scroll would deliver me the wisdom of Mitch McConnell.

Calm. Sunny. Double espressos. That was my reality. Mitch McConnell. John Boehner. They were someplace else.

Now if I can keep this up for two years.

On receiving an e-mail blaming the United States for ISIS

If I have it right, when it was pointed out to Ghandi that passive resistance would not have worked with Hitler, his reply was that you had to give it several generations. I am not sure even that would have worked. (It certainly have helped the Jews or gypsies, or gays or disabled in the immediate neighborhood.) But then wars haven’t gotten us too far either. There seems to be something in the nature of man that allows certain of them to rise to power which, when they have it, they use to torment others. But then what do those individuals or nations standing by who observe this do about it?

In an op-ed piece in yesterday’s Times, Arthur Brooks cited a study in which subjects were shown a.) a British sit-com; b.) a nature documentary; and c.) an “uplifting” Oprah episode. The Oprah watchers reported feeling the most optimism about humanity and desire to help others.
Is the answer more Oprah?

I just finished…

A medical “incident” (that’s the professionals’ term for it) and a crashed computer, whose replacement I am still being driven semi-batty by, have slowed me down; but let’s try to resume. Now where was I?

Oh yes, my readings. Well, while I’ve been away, I’ve completed Howard Sachar’s “A History of Israel,” which is excellent, but may contain more than you need to know — and my edition ended with the assassination of Yitzkak Rabin; Mark Kram’s “Ghosts of Manilla,” a few-warts-overlooked view of Frazier-and-Ali, written in a highly personal, slightly over-the-edge, but extremely effective style; and Lydia Davis’s “Complete Stories” (except there has been one collection since), which was wonderfully instructive as to what can be a story, or essay, or, even, blog.

I stand ready to discuss all or any.


It’s been a while. But I’ve been busy. So let’s get back to adolescence. This one appeared, on line, at THE BROAD STREET REVIEW, May 6, 2009, it’s title changed to “Growing Up At the Palestra, 1958.” It received a couple of nice responses, including one from Tink Van Patten’s brother or cousin.

Stanley Kessler’s father taught school with the guy who hired ushers for Penn football games. Stanley and I worked the fall of ‘56 and again in ‘57. You got $1 a game. You walked the ticket holders to their seats on the long, wood benches that ran up the sides of Franklin Field. You flicked the seats with a rag. If you had a rich alum or a sport on a date, you might catch a tip. I worked every game and don’t remember a moment or a player’s name. The end of the second season, the guy asked if we wanted to usher the Palestra. You got $2. You got no tips. You showed no one to their seats. You stood in the entranceway to your section and pointed up or down. You watched the games.
The Palestra was on 33rd between Spruce and Walnut. It had been Penn’s home court for 30 years; but, in 1955, four other Philadelphia area schools, LaSalle, St. Joseph’s, Temple, and Villanova, had joined the Quakers in an informal conference, The Big Five, agreeing to play each other and most of their “home” games there. It meant double-headers, three nights a week. Half-times and between games, the hallway that surrounded the arena’s core was a-jangle with buzz and laughter and “How you been, man?” “How’d you like my boy?” Fan and athlete circled flesh pressed against flesh, plaques on the wall conjuring heroes who had passed. There had never been anything like it.

Eighty percent of the players were local. They had played each other in school, in summer leagues, and on playgrounds. The rivalries were intense, the competition fierce, and the skill level high. (And that season, coming in to test them were Oscar Robertson, of Cincinnati, Jerry West, with West Virginia, and Philadelphia’s greatest player, Wilt Chamberlain, with Kansas.) If you were a basketball fan, you had rooted for your favorites from court-side through these levels; and, since the NBA allowed teams preferential rights to players from their areas, into the pros. (When Chamberlain joined the Philadelphia Warriors in 1959, with Paul Arizin, Tom Gola, and Guy Rodgers, four of its five starters were local.)
Rodgers was a senior at Temple in 1957-58. He led a prototypical Philadelphia team: small, highly talented guards (himself and Bill “Pickles” Kennedy); undersized, over-achieving forwards (Mel Brodsky and Jay “Pappy” Norman); and an earnest, if limited center (Tink Van Patton). All but Van Patton were products of Philadelphia public schools. So was their coach, the already legendary Harry Litwak, inventor of the box-and-one, master of the switching man-to-man zone, a wizard at transforming the unrecruited into the formidable. (Rodgers, who scouts had deemed “too short,” had an inch on Kennedy. Norman had come out of the service to play football and had bum knees. Brodsky was a walk-on, and Van Patton had busted a leg as a high school senior.) With another Philadelphian, Hal “King” Lear, instead of Kennedy in the backcourt, Temple had reached the semi-finals of the NCAA tournament two years earlier. This team looked better.
There are two types of sports fans. The more highly evolved savor the beauty of the movements, appreciate the finely honed bodies, derive joy from the physical excellence on display. They regard games as afficionados do ballet. I was of the lower kind. A fan who rooted out of his own discomforts and hurts and shortcomings. Who identified with a team or individual who appeared more talented, more powerful, more capable of vanquishing foes. Who won if they did. Whose value rested on these surrogates. “They keep score, don’t they?” is how I defended my position. “You don’t pay money for scrimmages, do you?”
Temple became my team of choice. Penn was Ivy League and, hence, effete. LaSalle, St. Joe’s and Villanova were too full of the older brothers of kids who’d hassled me and my friends as they’d passed through our neighborhood on their way home from St. Francis de Sales or Transfiguration (“Transy”) Elementary. But to a son of parents who had met at a fund-raiser for Spanish Loyalists, who had been raised on Paul Robeson’s Songs of Free Men, the scrappy, gritty Owls, from their cruddy, ghetto-bordering Broad Street campus, were the Brotherhood of Man personified. With Lear, Rodgers, Norman, and current sixth man Ophie Franklin, Temple had fielded more blacks than the other city schools combined. And with Brodsky stepping into the yarmulka of Fred Cohen and Hal “Hotsy” Reinfeld (and Joey Goldenberg and Stanley’s and my camp counselor, Gerry Lipson, on the bench), it also had the Jews. When Gerry introduced me to Jay Norman, on their arrival one evening at my section, and he had shook my hand, my 15-year-old allegiance was cemented.
After losing two of their first three games – in triple overtime, 85-83, at Kentucky, and two days later, at Cincinnati, when still physically and emotionally depleted – Temple had won 27 in a row, to again make the NCAA semi-finals and a rematch with Kentucky in Lexington. The game had aspects of the mythic. The ragamuffin Owls against the aristocratic Colonels. Kentucky had won three national championships (and one NIT) in the last decade; Temple had won none. Kentucky had Cliff Hagan, Frank Ramsey, and Lou Tsioropoulos (practically 4% of the entire league) in the NBA – and would have had twice that, but for the point-shaving scandal of 1952; Temple had no one. And in this time of Montgomery busses and Little Rock schools, Kentucky remained an all-white team, in an all-white conference, in a segregated state. (Unlike some SEC schools, Kentucky played teams with black athletes – but made little effort to control the insults and threats hurled from the stands upon them.) It seemed God had scripted the game to make a point.
Television had no interest in the NCAAs in 1958. I listened on a radio in the kitchen of a
girl named – no kidding – Hope. She dated the president of a high school fraternity to which I tenuously belonged. She’d invited Eric to a party, and he’d invited even his geekiest “brothers.” Gangly, gawky and eye-glassed, I felt about as desirable at parties as a banana slug on a pastry cart. The radio, with its game, was a place where I could withdraw and, through my devotions, feel myself a person of consequence, as I could not dancing to “Silhouettes,” while my partner’s eyes, I knew, sought Steven Silberfisch on Ben Borinsky.
On the hostile and malignant floor, even with Rodgers hampered by a bad back, Temple led by six with two minutes to go. Then Kennedy was called for a charge whose veridiculity, for 50 years, has been doubted by Philadelphians more fervently than Piltdown Man’s. A pass from Brodsky slipped through the rattled sophomore’s fingers. Kentucky 61-60. A knife in the throat. A scream in the night. An anguish oiled by Goya. The winners shellacked Elgin Baylor and Seattle for the title, and Temple waxed Kansas State, with Jack Parr and Bob Boozer, for third.
Sports, they say, prepares you for the world. Being a Philadelphia sports fan prepared you more than most. Jimmy Soo. Lenny Mathews. Charlie Scott. In future sessions, we’ll discuss Wilt’s annual dismemberment by the Celtics, the Phillies crash-and-burn in ‘64.

Fit to Print

The other day, a politically-minded e-mail correspondent forwarded me an article about ultra-orhodox Jews in Jerusalem trashing busses which held advertisements supporting the right of women to pray at the Wailing Wall. When I stated my people still seemed to have a better-behaved class of religious lunatics than those in it simmediate surround, he suggested my reply lacked ample sense of the gravity of the situation.

The following morning the SF Chronicle devoted the upper third of its third page to the same story. Upon close reading I noted that 50 men were involved (in a city with a population of 800,000)and that no one seemed to have been injured, let alone killed. This led me to wonder why the Chron had featured this story (and, indeed, why my correspondent had felt it worth forwarding). My curiosity was further picqued when I noted that the Chron had given onloy one paragraph to a bombing that had wounded 10 at Cairo University (and another paragraph to the issuance of a report that poverty in the US now placed more children at the risk of death than at any time in the past 20 years)and that it had overlooked, as reported in the dsame day’s NY Times, the killing, also in Jerusalem, of an 8-month old by a reputed Hamas leader or, most relevantly, the Iranian government’s passage of laws to protect individuals who take it upon themselves to enforce societal “norms” at a time when as many as nine women had recently been blinded or disfigured by acid attacks.

Maybe the Chron’s editorial choice of dog-bites-man. In certain societies aberrational behavior is taken for granted and in others it is not. Maybe it’s a matter of seeking “balanced” coverage of the lunacy-riven mid-east by reporting the most unseemly behavior it can find country-by-country. But I wonder if it may not be something more insidious. The sub-text of this article may be “These Jews are just as crazy — and potentially clerically fascistic as anyone.” And this, of course, gives rise to the question, Why should we have anything more to do with them and their troublesome country. Thus some trivial acts of vandalism become red meat at which those already so-inclined will snap.

Public Service Announcement

The NRA and the U.S. Ebola response.
Sign the petition to the U.S. Senate:
“You must stand up to the NRA and confirm Dr. Vivek Murthy as surgeon general. With dangerous misinformation about the Ebola virus running rampant, we need a level-headed surgeon general who can authoritatively and calmly lead the federal government’s public response.”

Add your name:

Dear Nicholas,

With Fox News spewing blatant1 misinformation2 with a shameful “racial component”3 to whip Americans into a frenzy about the Ebola virus, it would be useful to have a high-ranking public health official who could calmly and authoritatively communicate what the public needs to know.

And that’s exactly what the surgeon general of the United States is supposed to do.4

But because a handful of Senate Democrats caved to the NRA and opposed President Obama’s nominee over his acknowledgement that gun violence is a public health problem, we haven’t had a permanent surgeon general in place since July of last year.5

Tell the Senate: Stand up to the NRA and confirm Dr. Vivek Murthy as surgeon general now. Click here to sign the petition.

Recent polling indicates that the media’s Ebola fear-mongering is working. A Harvard School of Public Health poll found that nearly 40% of Americans think there will be a large scale Ebola outbreak in the United States, and that more than 25% are afraid that they or someone in their immediate family will contract the virus sometime in the next year.6

Meanwhile, the real risks are being ignored. Medical personnel who initially encountered the first Ebola patient who surfaced in the U.S. ignored safety protocols, potentially exposing hundreds of people to the disease. Despite having traveled recently from Liberia and exhibiting clear symptoms of the disease, he was sent home with antibiotics. Dr. Thomas Frieden, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called this incident a “teachable moment.” And the federal official that should be leading the charge to educate the American people and medical establishment to keep us all safe is NRA-blocked surgeon general nominee Dr. Vivek Murthy.

While the President has caved to the demands of fear-mongering Republicans by appointing an “Ebola Czar,” we still need a medical professional in place as surgeon general who can authoritatively communicate what the public needs to know.

Given the corporate media’s failure to responsibly educate the American people about the real risks associated with the Ebola virus – and the fact that panicking will only make the situation worse – it is more important than ever that we have a level-headed surgeon general in place who can calmly communicate with the American people.

Sign the petition: Tell the Senate to confirm Dr. Vivek Murthy as surgeon general. Click here to sign the petition.

Dr. Vivek Murthy is exceptionally well qualified to serve as surgeon general. He currently serves as president of Doctors for America, works as an internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and teaches at Harvard Medical School. In the past, he started a software technology company that makes clinical trials more efficient and co-founded a non-profit focused on HIV prevention and AIDS education in India and the United States.

That’s why more than 120,000 CREDO activists signed a petition last year urging the Senate to confirm Dr. Murthy as surgeon general, and nearly 1,000 made calls to key Senators with the same demand.

With public health capturing Americans’ attention due to the spread of the Ebola virus, now is the perfect time to pressure the Senate to stand up to the NRA and confirm Dr. Vivek Murthy as surgeon general.

Tell the Senate: Fight the NRA and Ebola at the same time by confirming Dr. Murthy as surgeon general. Click here to sign the petition.

Thanks for standing up to the NRA.

Josh Nelson, Campaign Manager

Recommended Reading

My pal Richard Weber has a new book out. I told him that since I fear Amazon more than the NSA I wouldn’t expose my friends’ e-mail addresses to its evil web, but I would blog a plug for his book to my quarter-dozens of readers here. So listen up to a few words from Richard.

Ola! Salut! Greetings!

Here’s the amazon url to my latest novel – IN FLAMES:


From Random House Alibi.

You can now pre-order for yourselves & gift pre-order for as many people as you wish – 100’s & 100’s, I trust. You only have to supply e-mail addresses, and on Feb 3, 2015, each will receive a notice from amazon with a code allowing them to download IN FLAMES (as your gift) to whatever device they have, including computers, (where needed, also a free amazon app enabling this).

And all this for the new low, low, specially discounted price of $4.34 per gift – including for yourselves – if you pre-order now! Shipping free to anywhere in the world! Forget giftwrapping, it’s electronic magic! Such a deal.

Also, pre-ordering now helps me considerably, so muchas gracias, mille fois merci à tous.

Go well.


Final (Maybe) Words

Dear Exasperated Readers,
We may finally be done with conspiracy talk. My leading correspondent on this issue expressed willingness to continue the discussion only with the proviso that, as regards JFK, I “agree there is no question but that there was a conspiracy.” I declined and said it might be best if we moved on.

He agreed it would be best to move on and then did not move on but delivered his opinion that the reason people (such as myself) did not see the truth was because they were “confused by the mass media” and found this “truth… too disturbing to (their) identities.”

I agreed that people held to their beliefs because their sense of self were often dependant upon them. Lord knows, I said, our discussions have, if nothing else, demonstrated that.

Baby, What I Say

My friend Robert, an artist and art critic, recently contributed to the on-line Berkeley Historical Plaque Project a salute to an anonymous artist whose medium was the tar used to repair cracks on the Nimitz Trail Robert compared his (or her) “expressionistic grace” to that of a caligrapher and caled attention to the “exploding strokes, errant gestures and… hints of figure.” When I complimented Robert on his droll skewering or art critics and their prose, as well as his ability to write with his tongue implanted so firmly in his cheek, he replied that he might have been droll, but that his praise was sincere.

Oops! After wiping the egg from my face, I noted that Duchamp’s Theorem: “Art is what an artist says it is, now had Kehlmann’s Corollary: “Art criticism is what an art critice says it is” as well.