Sunday, January 29, 2017

Unbought and Unbossed

Shirley Chisholm, we need you now more than ever.

Forty-five years ago this month, an African-American woman from Brooklyn announced that she was running for President of the United States.

I have this faint memory of seeing Shirley Chisholm on the old Eyewitness News show calling upon her fellow Americans to join her in “an effort to reshape our society and regain control of our destiny as we go down the Chisholm Trail for 1972.”

Obviously she didn’t have a prayer of winning, but the fact that a minority woman had stepped forward and declared her candidacy for the highest office in the land was an incredible moment in this country’s history.

I had the distinct privileged of interviewing Shirley Chisholm sometime around 1990 when I was a reporter at the Pocono Record.

She was staying at one of the area resorts and I was lucky enough to be sent down there to speak with her. I’m from Brooklyn and I had grown up watching her on TV, so it was a thrill to meet her.

I reminded her of her presidential announcement and that line about going down the Chisholm Trail.

“You remember that?” She laughed. “You must’ve been so young.”

Yes, I was, but I never forgot that moment. This was a time when presidential candidates were Caucasian males and Caucasian males only. But Ms. Chisholm said she ran for the office "in spite of hopeless odds ... to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the
status quo."

Harsh Times

The Seventies was such a volatile time in America—the Vietnam War was raging on, there were riots on college campuses all over the country, and Richard Nixon was busy spying on his political enemies.

And Shirley Chisholm was in the middle of it all. I reminded her of a raucous Democratic State Committee meeting in the Catskills in 1970 when Ms. Chisholm demanded that the ticket have a black candidate.

“Get off the stage!” someone shouted.

“You come down and get me off!” Ms. Chisholm responded.

I told her that I had also seen this confrontation on TV, and I mentioned that no one had taken her up on her offer.
“No takers!” she said with a smile.

I was so happy to speak with her. She was strong, determined, and decent. Her early campaign slogan—and also the title of her autobiography--was “Unbought and Unbossed,” and that’s just what this country needs—back then and especially now.

“I have a firm belief in myself and unshakeable faith in God,” she told me.

She radiated this incredible energy and she bemoaned the apathy that gripped America at the time.

I can only imagine what she’d think about the current political situation where the president is a racist reality show star determined the undo the Constitution. I wonder what she would have to say about “alternative facts.”

Shirley Chisholm retired to Florida in 1991 and she died January 1, 2005. I’m so grateful I had a chance to meet her and I just wish we had more people like her who demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Rainy Day Children

It was the first day of school, the rain was falling, and a little girl named Patricia was crying her eyes out.

That random recollection came floating through my mind the other day, possibly roused by a recent review of my Catholic school posts. Apparently I knocked it off a shelf in my memory and it just started playing.

Patricia was a classmate of mine, a scrawny, pale child who seemed to be getting into trouble throughout the entire first grade.

She pulled some stunt on me once—pushed my crayons to the floor or some such childhood version of a capital offense--and I decided that she was evil incarnate and could never be forgiven.

We had all heard she had been left back and would have to repeat the first grade, and yet there she was, sitting with the rest of us in our second year at Our Lady of Angels Catholic School.

And then the voices started.

One of the girls told the sister that Patricia had been left back and several other kids quickly joined the chorus.

“She’s not supposed to be here,” they all said.

Patricia looked around the room in terror as the accusations piled up around her.

I don’t honestly remember if I joined in with the others, but I was definitely with them in spirit; we had an intruder in our midst and she had to be exposed.

And that’s when Patricia started crying, louder and louder as the nun in charge escorted her out of the classroom.

This particular sister was surprisingly restrained upon learning of the child’s chicanery and spoke to her softly—as opposed to smacking the kid into a coma and throwing her under a speeding locomotive.

This Way Out

“Now, now,” she said to Patricia. “It’s already raining outside, we can’t have rain inside, too.”

She deserved it, I thought, she’s a liar and a cheater. I went home and told my parents about how bad Patricia had been caught and driven out of class on a rail.

But they didn’t react like I thought they would.

“The poor thing,” my mother said. “That’s terrible.”

Terrible? No, she had it coming. She didn’t belong in our class. And I still hadn’t forgotten about that crayon incident.
“Those kids should’ve kept quite,” my dad said.

I didn’t begin to understand their logic. Patricia was trying to crash the second grade; she deserved to be punished. Why were they so sympathetic to a blatant fraud?

But then my mom and dad had lived through the Depression and the Second World War, so they knew what real evil, real hardship looked like. And, as loving parents, they were angered and upset at the thought of any child suffering.

I was completely confused at the time, but I see now that my parents were right. We should’ve kept our mouths shut that day.

All Patricia had done was try to get ahead any way she could. If she were a Wall Street broker she’d be hailed as a genius and if she were a politician we’d put her in the fucking White House.

The school staff would’ve discovered her scam soon enough. It wasn’t necessary for us to play Hitler Youth.

Patricia’s breakdown rolled right off me that day like rain on stainless steel, but all these decades later I can hear her sobbing and it cuts right through my heart.

I never saw Patricia again and though it means absolutely nothing now, I’d just want to say that I’m sorry for what we did to you. I’m sorry you were humiliated like that.

And I hope you’ve had a happy life with plenty of joy, much love, and very few rainy days.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Future Tense

Imagine a world where the air is so foul that people are forced to live underground.

And imagine that America is a fascist state run like a corporation with a slew of vice-presidents.

In 1971 author Philip Wylie imagined such a world in a script for the NBC series The Name of the Game.

The show centered on a magazine publisher, an editor, and a crusading reporter, but this particular episode took a sharp turn into science fiction.

And what was the title of this show?

LA: 2017.”

Yes, exactly, the hideous world depicted in the program takes place…now.

I watched the show when it was first broadcast on January 15, 1971—46 flipping years ago today--and it floated back into my memory last week when I should’ve been doing something else.

I immediately began searching for some background on the show and I learned this episode was directed by a young man named Steven Spielberg, who I believe has been fairly successful in the movie business.

The story involves the magazine publisher, played by Gene Barry, who is driving home from a conference on ecology when he passes out behind the wheel and wakes up in the eponymous dystopia.

Prior to keeling over, Barry is dictating a memo to the president, warning that the threat to the environment is so serious “it could be the beginning of the end of the earth as we know it.”

And I Feel Fine...

For a detailed description of the show, you may want to take a look at John Kenneth Muir’s Reflections on Cult Movies and Classic TV.

My memory of the show is quite hazy, not surprising, I suppose, given all those years. I recall Gene Barry waking up in the polluted planet, a terrorist bombing, and not much else.

I also read a novelization of the script written by Wylie, but I remember even less about that.

While the program was ahead of its time in many ways, it does look somewhat creaky now, judging by what I on found on YouTube, like an excruciating scene with some aging hippies.

But it’s easy to look back and mock the past. The show did highlight the dangers of pollution, but clearly we didn’t get the message.

On Friday, a deranged “businessman” who claims climate change is a scam invented by the Chinese will be sworn in as the President of the United States.

All of a sudden being driven underground by polluted air doesn’t seem so farfetched.

There’s a scene in “LA 2017” where Gene Barry berates the vice president for maintaining a totalitarian state, but the VP asks why didn’t the wealthy publisher do something to prevent this twisted world from happening when he had the chance back in 1971.

Why, indeed.

I have very little hope for our environment, our economy, or our democracy as this new gang takes over the government.

Already there’s talk of shutting out reporters from the White House and the President-elect can’t seem to hold a press conference without a gang of goons cheering on his every move.

We’re heading into some very rough days, I fear, and we’re a lot closer to the end of the earth as we know it than we were way back in 1971.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Freeze and Thank You

I thought the library was supposed to be quiet.

I went to the Bay Ridge Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library on Friday in search of some heat. Not in the form of racy novels, mind you, but real heat, as in the hot air that keeps you from freezing your ass off.

The heat in my building had gone belly up the night before and since I work from home, my office was getting chillier by the moment.

The repair guy got it running for a short time early Friday morning and I made the mistake of celebrating too soon, thus encouraging Fate, Karma, or whoever the hell controls the eternal thermostat to snort and shout “that’s what you think, skinhead!” before promptly shutting the boiler down again.

No problem, I told myself. I’ll just grab my laptop, skedaddle over to the neighborhood reading room and do my job on the fly.

Hell, I’ve written stories in airport terminals and hotel lobbies and conducted phone interviews in speeding taxies. The library is also where I developed my reading habit as a child, so this gig would be a bit of a homecoming.

Okay, well, it didn’t quite work out that way. First of all, the place was crowded and I had trouble getting a seat. Then there was a small army of toddlers running, screaming, and crying in all directions.

And on top of that there was a lady conducting an English conversation group for them what don’t know how to talk right.

But I accepted all that, particularly in light of that fact that I was feeling actual warmth. I knew I could handle the noise.

However the real problem was with my laptop, and more specifically…me. I had trouble getting into my company email account, which meant I couldn’t communicate with my editors or file my stories.

It’s the Latest, It’s the Greatest

You have signed out, the message on my screen read.

"No, shmuck, I didn’t sign out," I growled at the inanimate object.

True to form, my mind started churning out all these awful scenarios of missing deadline and getting in trouble. And then some little kid went completely over the wall and start screaming to hell and back.

This must’ve been the first time in my life that I ever wanted to be in an office.

I began cursing at my laptop, a habit I picked up from my Italian grandmother who used to tell the TV to shut up whenever it got on her nerves.

Finally I’d had enough. I was undoubtedly annoying people around me by adding to the noise level, so I slammed down the lid on my laptop and hightailed it back my igloo.

On the way home I grumbled about how unfair it all was and I reminded myself that the New Year wasn’t a week old yet and already I was giving the anger management resolution a hernia.

Anger really has become a habit with me and I could hear myself fuming about how awful everything was knowing full well that I really wasn’t as pissed as I sounded.

It was like I was playing a part rather than reacting with my true feelings.

My ongoing dread of technology is part of the problem, but only a small part. It’s this addiction to rage that I want to quell.

Anyway, I got to my apartment, kept on the sweater and the ski hat and got cranking on my stories.

The heat came back on at about 3:30pm and it stayed on this time, which is good as we had a snowstorm on Saturday and brutally freezing temperatures tonight.

And now I’m thinking of a homeless I see most mornings when I go to the gym who sleeps at the base of a street lamp at Broadway and Vesey Street.

He’s huddled under some rags with only a piece of cardboard separating him from the freezing concrete. I’m sure he’d be very happy to have a roof over his head, with or without the heat.

If I see him on Tuesday, I’ll be sure to say a prayer and put a dollar in his cup.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Picasso’s Disciple

“What do you is what counts and not what you had the intention of doing.” – Pablo Picasso

I’m not going to waste any time listing my New Year’s resolutions.

I truly love the idea of making all these annual promises to change, clean up my act, eat better, work harder, learn a foreign language, and solve all the world’s problems in the next 12 months.

But I’m thinking I might tone it down a little. I already know what I want and what I have to do to get what I want.

So this is a tune-up, a check-in to see how far off the path I’ve wandered (pretty far) and what I have to do to get back on track. I just can’t take the cynic’s route and dismiss the potential for change.

I know that I’ve slipped up pretty seriously in several areas and it’s all for the same reason—a lack of discipline.

For one thing, I’ve been wasting far too much time screwing around on YouTube. I do love the site, but I’ve allowed it to take over my life.

There’s always an old song or instructional video, or movie clip or some other such time-burning bullshit to keep me from writing, reading, meditating or otherwise improving my life.

I’ve also been watching too much TV and not even good TV, but a lot of crap. And let’s not even mention Facebook.

Start Here

I’d like to be more disciplined in my reaching my goals and I want to use “discipline” in a positive sense, not the self-defeating, psycho drill sergeant browbeating mentality that bludgeons my soul into a fetal position.

That kind of abuse just sinks you deeper in the mud.

The followers of Jesus Christ were called disciples, and they didn’t follow Him out of fear or guilt; they followed Him out of love, and that’s how I want to approach my goals—with love, not dread.

What I’d like to achieve is a state of striving gratitude, where I am thankful, truly thankful for everything I have--from my family to the roof over my head to the food on my table—while still working hard to make my life better.

And while it’s certainly true that you can change your life any day you chose, New Year’s Day seems like a good time to start.

The Picasso quote at the top of this post is going to be my guide for 2017 and discipline is going to be my mantra.

I already know I’m going to stumble. God knows I’ve done it many times before. The only way not to fail is to do nothing and then you fail at life.

The kind of regret from not attempting something hurts a hundred times more than trying something and failing. I know this from some very personal experience.

I have a specific set of goals, most of which have been around for several years. But I finally published my novel last year and if I can scratch that sucker off the list, then I’m free to move on to others.

And if I could learn how to speak Polish and bring about world peace this year as well, so much the better.

Happy New Year.