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Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Last Christmas Under Communism in Poland


The last Christmas in Poland under Communism.

So, because I am alone in the universe, I have this fraught relationship with Christmas.

But Christmas in Poland under Communism ... the last Christmas in Poland under Communism ...

Poland was so grim in 1988-89. It was like living inside a Kafka novella. The air was heavy and grey like lead. Steel mill pollution. Two people I knew, in their twenties, had heart attacks. Food lines. None of the color that comes from capitalist advertising.

Post Solidarity. Post martial law. Post hope.

People bitter, resigned, hurting, drunks lying in the street. Going to the best restaurant in a major city and the waiter taking your coat and seating you and you go down the menu and he just says "Nie ma nie ma" over and over. "We don't have that." And you just leave, having eaten nothing. Nothing to be had.

Going to a major conference center and finding a toilet that has no paper and cannot flush.

Bureaucrats screwing you over in petty, malicious ways. A half hour procedure just to get a piece of mail.

The riots. I think we rioted because we wanted to end communism, but also because rioting was the only source of excitement.

And then Christmas season. In all that coal smell and meanness, something genuinely magic happened and I cannot describe it at all. Not like here. No huge sums of money invested in marketing. No government sponsored Christmas displays.

You had to go into churches, and you, and everybody, went into churches all the time. Medieval churches. Renaissance churches. Modern churches. Every few steps a church. Always open. Candles. People praying.

The parishoners handmade Christmas decorations. One display made of little, handmade puppets of Catholic figures, including John Paul II. The carols! No nation's carols beats Polish carols. They are so, so, so lovely. Gems. Jewels.

People would stand on line forever to get carp for the Christmas eve dinner.

I had planned Christmas alone, but the Poles would not have it. A woman alone on Christmas? Not possible!

This crazy, wonderful Polish woman insisted I go to her family's wigilia, or Christmas eve feast.

Because life was so dead, so denied, so nothing, people exploded with their own selves, if they had something inside to explode. These skinny, small, pale, thin-haired Poles in threadbare clothing, were all writing plays they produced themselves, or staged wild dances, or would jump up, totally drunk after a liter of vodka, and start pounding out Chopin from a piano. Just human beings going off like firecrackers, because there was no interference to stop them. Where there is no hope, there is often no fear.

This girl designed clothes. She designed a dress made of tree limbs she set alight. It was wild.

Heavy makeup. Black, flowing clothing. But for all that, she was a traditional Polish girl at heart. WOULD NOT hear of me spending Christmas alone.

Her family's apartment in Krakow was about as large and appealing as the bathroom stall in a MacDonald's. Paint chipping off walls. Dim. They kept turning lights off because if the light bulb burned out, you couldn't get a new one.

The table was magnificent. Beautiful table cloth. The traditional extravaganza of courses. Little baby pierogie stuffed with mushrooms. All prepared in a minimal kitchen fit for a prison cell.

There were oplatki. communion wafer with nativity scenes stamped into them. You walk up to your fellow diner, hold out your oplatek, and say, "Wszystkiago Najlepszego," "all the best," and you take a small portion of theirs, and they take a small portion of yours, and you eat it. You do that until you have communed with everyone in the room, and your oplatek is all gone. This is Poland. We are in this together. Sharing sustenance is a sacred ritual.

The phone rang. The young designer answered it, and spoke with warmth and animation. After she hung up, she said it was her grandfather. "Did you get to speak to your grandmother too?" "No, she died in Auschwitz," said very casually, off hand. No big deal.

I wish I could convey the warmth, the magic, the music, the light in darkness, the wave of undeniable hope, that Poles created that last Christmas under communism. It makes me want to weep.

From Crazy Polish Guy

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Last Christmas

December 25, 2014, I arrived at her house at four p.m.

She was in bed. The TV was on. No one else was there.

I sat in the chair in the corner.

She had had a really bad autumn. There were times in autumn, 2014, when I left the various facilities she was at, that I thought I might never see her alive again. She was in three different facilities. I never really saw the point of moving her so much, but better minds than mine were at work.

She had had a bad infection, and was on massive antibiotics. She was slipping away from us, and no one could explain why. She was terminally ill. We knew that. The head doctor would summon us out into the hallway and when her daughter or her husband appeared too effervescent, too hopeful, when they used verbs that seemed to indicate too much of an investment in any kind of future tense, the head doctor would look at them, his brows as heavy as concrete.

As I've said, I knew from the first phone call, even though that first call was just to report that she'd been driving erratically. I never spoke with too much hope. I never needed the leaden-brow lecture in the hall from the head doctor who specializes in a disease that always removes his patients within a matter of months of initial diagnosis. How he does it I do not know. 

But, with all that, she was too sick last autumn, sicker than seemed appropriate. They kept saying that at that point, the tumor was only the size of a pea.

Later it would grow so fast that the nurse who saw the MRI looked at my sister's daughter and she, the daughter, saw the nurse's facial expression and burst into tears and it was all too clear. But that was later.

My sister should have been okay last fall, and she wasn't. She very much wasn't. One night, Halloween, I had actually shown up in my Halloween costume, to amuse her -- she and I had loved to play dress up together -- and she was completely unresponsive. She ws making motions with her hands as if sewing something, but her hands were empty. She kept repeating her youngest child's name, but her eyes were dead.

I'm telling you, environmentalist Aldo Leopold talks about seeing green fire die in the eyes of a wolf he'd shot. Antoinette had crackling green eyes and seeing her eyes that night I knew every pain Leopold felt and more.

I thank Otto for being with me that evening.

But then the antibiotics kicked in and she re-inhabited her body and they released her from the various facilities and she was at home on Christmas, 2014.

Christmas day is always a challenge for us alone-in-the-universe types. I often hike, go to the movies, or really plunge into a book. I can get serious reading done, my dyslexia and ADHD less stimulated by a world obsessed with family. I am surrounded by a cushion of empty silence and can really read.

Antoinette and I had tried to spend Christmas together in 2005, right after I got back from Indiana. We hadn't seen each other or spoken or written or anything in almost a decade at that point. If I told you what prompted that separation your hair might catch on fire. My loved ones are nothing if not skilled at crafting the kind of scenarios that can lead to a decade of silence. Let's just say she had done something ... really bad. Something followed by ten years of silence.

We tried to spend Christmas together in 2005, and ... that did not work out. Someday I can tell all these stories. Now is not the time.

So we had not been together on Christmas ... not since, I don't think, we spent Christmas at Aunt Phyllis' father-in-law's house, the lovely, Victorian, wrap around porch haunted shore house across from the very same St George's-by-the-river church that new Facebook friend Walter Perry mentioned just the other day. The year she finally stopped giving me feminine presents, and she gave me a Swiss Army Knife, and I was so touched, I opened it up and cried, and she laughed, "Oh my God, you are crying? I thought you'd like it!" I didn't like it; I loved it. I just cut my nails with it two minutes ago.

But when we were kids, oh, we were together on Christmas. We used to go to Midnight Mass together. We used to giggle like idiots when the passage from Isaiah was read "The pole on their shoulder..." Tee hee hee ... we're Polish ... Pole on the shoulder ...

One year Mommy gave us matching rosaries. Antoinette's was lavender. Mine was sky blue. I still have the box. So, so pretty.

We'd stay up late grinding walnuts for kolache and Slovak Christmas cookies. We'd exhaust ourselves in the kitchen. That room is in fact so small but we burned up as many calories, and built up as many muscles, as Olympians do in giant gymnasiums. Eastern Europeans know how to combine punishing routines with gustatory sensuosity.

We'd smell nice, with some little girl perfume we'd just gotten as a present – Heaven Sent by Avon. Midnight Mass feels like the unfamiliar feel of pantyhose -- we got dressed up for mass. And the sparkle of the snow under the streetlights, its crunch underfoot, the distant sound of chains on tires, as we walked to St Francis Church. The red, purple, green and gold glow of the stained glass windows reflected on the white snow on the expanse of church lawn.

"What Child is This" her favorite Christmas carol. And "Angels We Have Heard on High."

The church would be crowded and there would be muffled coughs and the vague scent of moist wool and moth balls. There would be old Italian ladies in black lace mantillas. One of our regular church ladies' head was always tilted. I don't know if it was an injury or a birth defect.

We were surrounded by very strong, wounded people who carried their wounds with great fortitude and dignity.

I missed those old church people so very badly as I traveled the world and when I returned and they hugged me at my mother's funeral I wanted to grab them and never let them go, realizing how precious and irreplaceable they all were. Lillian Evans, Rosemary Salmon, Mary Manning, Ethel Daughren, Ellie Burns: soldiers in a spiritual army.

So Christmas, 2014, was the first time Antoinette spent Christmas together in quite a while, iirc.

She was lying on the bed the whole time. I sat in the chair. I had brought my computer and I was paging through Facebook. Antoinette didn't need all my attention. She couldn't use it. I remember we talked about movies. I remember she kept trying to use the remote control and not using it correctly and screwing up the TV and my feeble attempts to get broadcasting back.

She'd ask what was on, and I'd tell her, and we'd talk about that for a bit, and she'd drift out, and drift back in again.

As it ever is with someone who is terminally ill, she was in and out of various degrees of awareness. I assume they were giving her something for anxiety. She was more mellow.

Here's something I haven't yet attempted to communicate, because I think it's just too hard, and too easy to be misunderstood.

The hours that I spent with her as she was dying, and in bed, hours when I could do nothing to rescue her or alter her fate in any way, were some of the most pleasant hours I spent with her in some time.

She and I used to sleep together. No matter what else was going on, we were a big family in a small house. People had to sleep together, and she and I did.

Those memories of being in the same bed, talking, playing, giggling, making up stories to entertain each other.

All that came back when I used to sit next to her when she was in bed.

It did last Christmas. As the night wore on, she and I were the only ones in the house, just Toni and Di, two sisters in bed surrounded by a big night of darkness. When we were kids, the obvious metaphor for the large dark unknown surrounding us was life; now, of course, it was death. It had all gone by so quickly.
 I realized, Christmas is always hard for alone-in-the-universe me, but this is the best Christmas I've had in a while, and I know it is her last, and no matter what happens, I know Christmas next year will not be better than this one. 

Monday, December 14, 2015

My Name Is Mahtob "Not Without My Daughter" Grows Up: Book Review

This review first appeared at FrontPage magazine here

"Not Without My Daughter"'s Mahtob Mahmoody Grows Up
"My Name Is Mahtob": A Woman's Life in Iran and in America

A recent American college graduate was traveling in Chad, a Muslim-majority nation in North Africa. The pickup truck broke down. Passengers rested in a roadside stand of hammered-together boards. A Chadian man was traveling with his wife. She was fully veiled, in spite of the Saharan heat. Her husband did not speak to her. He controlled her with gestures and sounds, as if she were a dog. At his command, she squatted on the dirt floor, her covered face against an interior wall of the shack. As her husband conversed animatedly with the American, and bought him drinks and snacks, she squatted silently, hour after hour, probably both hungry and thirsty, until another conveyance arrived.

It's been thirty years since that young American told me that story. I think of that squatting, silenced, shrouded Chadian woman often. I think of millions of other captives like her. One of the first things I saw in Africa, before I had even unpacked my bags, was a female genital mutilation ceremony. Peace Corps Volunteers tend to be young Kennedys: very left-wing, often affluent and recent graduates of elite colleges who make worshipful references to progressive professors and other heroes. How did volunteers reconcile their culturally relativistic ideals that forbade any condemnation of non-Western culture, with the non-Western world's often atrocious treatment of women? This is how. They told themselves and each other, "The women here like how things are. These women are happy."

In private and in whispers, village women in Africa and Asia confided secrets to me that did not square with this item of Peace Corps dogma. When I published village women's transgressive truths in essays, one of my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers threatened to beat me up. A Peace Corps trainer accused me of being a "terrorist."

Mahtob Mahmoody is the eponymous daughter of the 1987 international publishing phenomenon, Not Without My Daughter, and the 1991 film by the same name. Not Without My Daughter tells the story of Betty and Dr. Sayyed Mahmoody. Betty and "Moody" met and married in the US. He had been charming and Westernized. He drank alcohol, forbidden in Islam. After the 1979 Iranian Revolution, he became a zealous, observant Muslim. Exploiting first amendment rights to freedom of speech, Moody organized demonstrations against the United States. In 1984, the Mahmoody family traveled to his native country. In Iran, Moody told Betty that he'd never let her leave. After eighteen months, Betty managed to get herself and her daughter smuggled out of the country.

Betty had asked American officials for help, and her case became a cause célèbre. Neither Betty nor Mahtob ever had the chance of anonymity. The William Morris Agency began aggressively petitioning Betty for a book shortly after her arrival in the US. Betty could escape Moody by disappearing into something like the witness protection program and never having contact with her extended family again, or by using fame to protect her. She opted for fame. She became a published author and campaigner for parents of kidnapped children.

Mahtob is now 36, and able to tell her own story. My Name Is Mahtob is superb. It is more than a page-turner that addresses sensational, headline-making family scandal and international intrigue. It is a flawlessly written, exquisitely intimate memoir of the coming of age of a timid introvert who had to find her own version of strength after fame was thrust upon her. It is a record of how someone who suffers more than outsiders might imagine reconciles her trials with Christian faith. It is a heart-rending account of the irrational ugliness of child abuse, and the Catch-22, dead-end mazes that abusive parents force upon their own innocent children. It is, in places, a terrifying account of being stalked.

If you are a father, I ask you to imagine how your daughter would write of you in her memoir. Through you, your daughter learned how to love and trust a man. Your daughter learned that men have beards, and deeper voices, and are good with tools. In any memoir I'd write of my dad, I'd mention his ferocious dedication, no matter how old he got, to keeping his sidewalks clear of snow. I'd mention my confidence that no matter where or when my car broke down, he'd rescue me.

Young Mahtob Mahmoody, on the other hand, dreams of her father as a wild animal. He is "in midair, paws outstretched, on the verge of tearing my body to shreds. Drool dripped from its fangs … I hugged my Cabbage Patch doll … I had wet the bed." Mahtob quotes her dad talking to her mother, "If you ever touch the telephone, I'll kill you … If you ever walk out that door, I'll kill you … I'll send the ashes of a burned American flag back over your body." Mahtob describes Moody beating Betty. "He took clumps of her hair in both hands and brutally bashed her head against the wall." "His fists pounded into Mom, calling her a saag, a dog, a most detested and filthy creature in the Persian culture." "I wanted to get away from my dad and his threats, his beatings and the terrifying sound of his angry footsteps." Mahtob describes her mother sleeping. "first came the snoring, and when the snoring stopped the screaming began. 'Moody, no,' she'd beg…She kicked, scratched, and pleaded."

Even after return to America, Mahtob lived "every day of my life with the intense dread of my world being turned on end with the flip of a switch … the threat of my dad lurked in every shadow." Eventually, Mahtob is diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus. "I was quite literally under the constant threat of attack from my own flesh and blood." Mahtob understands the illness as a physical manifestation of the threat her father.

I am reminded of culturally relativistic Peace Corps dogma: "The women here like how things are. These women are happy." Mahtob Mahmoody certainly did not intend her memoir to be a window into and an indictment of Muslim gender apartheid and patriarchal privilege. It is, unavoidably, that.

Here's what My Name Is Mahtob is not. It is not an anti-Muslim or anti-Islamic or anti-Iran racist screed. Agitators have accused Not Without My Daughter, both book and film, of being "racist." Websites that host discussions of the book and the film include comments by angry Muslims that the story is the product of all-powerful "Zionists;" see, for example, here. In fact the same Western publishers and audiences who championed Not Without My Daughter also supported very affectionate depictions of Muslim father-daughter relationships in the critically acclaimed and financially successful I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.

Betty Mahmoody loved her husband and his world. Many Iranian Muslims, from shopkeepers to smugglers to a complete stranger met on a park bench, planned and carried out Betty's flight to freedom. She can't name these heroes but she describes them indelibly. No one who has read either book could help but be moved by these heroes' courage, compassion, and dedication. Mahtob's Iranian honorary "Uncle" Kombiz is one of the wisest and most endearing characters of her book.

Mahtob is herself proudly half Persian, as she makes clear from the opening to the closing pages of My Name is Mahtob. The Persian No-ruz, or New Year's custom of haft-sin is the framing device for the entire book. Mahtob, now a mental health professional, diagnoses her father as suffering from the ethnicity-neutral condition of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The word "Islam" barely appears. We all know that there are men of all nations and creeds who abuse their wives, and that there are parents everywhere who abuse their children. We know, too, that not all Muslims nor all Iranians abuse their wives and children.

It's impossible to forget, though, that Moody's abuse was sanctioned by his religion and his culture. Iranian law and Muslim custom supported his absolute dominance. Mahtob does not mention this, but Koran 4:34 advises men to beat their wives, and male dominance in the household is so thorough in Islamic jurisprudence that even a woman's breast milk is her husband's property. Moody's extended family watched him beat Betty and did not intervene. Mahtob watched Iranian boys and girls play house; the boys ordered the girls around. The girls allowed their chadors to slip, and the boys threatened them with punishment for this infraction.

After Betty and Mahtob escaped, Moody, still in Iran, deputized allies in the US to stalk Mahtob. One stalker broke into her apartment and left his scatological calling card in her toilet. There were hang-up phone calls, gunshots, and the disappearance of a family dog. Mahtob had to live with the fear of being the victim of an honor killing.

Moody could not bring himself to apologize to Mahtob, even as he obsessed on her accomplishments. It was important to him publicly to claim a relationship to a daughter who had been named valedictorian of her college class. When he finally phoned, all he could say is that Mahtob is Muslim, and he will never allow her to be anything but Muslim. She responded sarcastically, "I thought he might say he misses me and he hopes I'm happy."

Moody's inability to apologize, his insistence on dominating Mahtob's spiritual life, and his grandiose obsession with worldly markers of success are certainly the signatures of narcissism, but they will also be familiar to anyone who has read Raphael Patai's The Arab Mind and Bernard Lewis' What Went Wrong and The Crisis of Islam. These books discuss the importance of honor and the discomfort many Muslims feel when confronting the gulf between the economic and cultural failings of their own nations and the advance of the rest of the world, and attempts to compensate for shame with grandiosity.  

Mahtob uses Christian disciplines like forgiveness, gratitude, love and prayer to find peace. Moody's Islam did not bequeath to him the incredible graces of unconditional love, humility, and ritualized confession. To his last, Moody cultivated anger, self-pity, and revenge. He obsessed on Betty and Mahtob, but he could never experience that peace that he would have known had he merely humbly confessed to his loved ones that he had failed, he had hurt them, and he needed to be forgiven. He could not love Mahtob no matter what she decided to be; he had to love a Mahtob who submitted to Islam.  

Though Mahtob gives every indication that she does not want her book to be a microcosm of Islamic gender relations and relations between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds, it is. Even the paranoid and hostile reaction of too many Islam-apologists to the books is a reflection of Islam's lack of emphasis on confession and forgiveness and the excessive emphasis on keeping up worldly appearances of grandeur. Betty and Mahtob are telling true stories that need to be told. It will benefit Muslims when they can say, "We welcome these women's testimony. Their frankness will help us to clean our own house."

In addition to her personal story, Mahtob offers insightful descriptions of both Iran and the US. Mahtob describes being a child in Iran. The Pasdar, or virtue police, armed with automatic weapons, threaten women whose socks droop. Schoolchildren are daily forced to desecrate an American flag and chant "Death to America." They are also encouraged to inform on mothers who don't wear hijab at home and parents who drink alcohol or listen to music. In class there is only chanting by rote, no questioning, no working through intellectual challenges. Given a plastic "key to paradise," many Iranian children are seduced into the suicidal service of clearing landmines. Gunshots are a common sound; there are public executions and there are simple disappearances. These passages bring to mind George Orwell's 1984 and Bernard Lewis' essay "Communism and Islam."

It would be nice if Mahtob could report that she never encounters such indoctrination in American schools; such is not the case. Mahtob's American professor asks her how the universe came to be. God created it, Mahtob replies. Her American professor "berates, humiliates, and cruelly rebukes" her so badly that other students approach Mahtob after class to comfort her. Mahtob learns that the famous quote about not agreeing with an opinion, but defending to the death the right to express an opinion, does not apply on American college campuses. "Christianity had become taboo. I vowed never to open my mouth in class again … Maybe this class is a means to an end. Maybe it's better to just keep quiet, pass the class, and move on."

My Name Is Mahtob is one of those memoirs that is so well written that this reader found it impossible not to come to love the author. Mahtob is a quiet introvert and one senses how hard it was for her to get this story down, and to share it with the world. She has aroused in this reader not just awe for her writing skills, and compassion for all she has endured, but also gratitude. 

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Frank Sinatra: An Immigrant's Soul, a Nation's Voice

Frank Sinatra: An Immigrant's Soul, a Nation's Voice
The Ryder June 12, 1998

Others better qualified have already told you why every pop radio station, singer and fan had cause, if not sense, to pause for a moment on May 15.  All I can do is tell you why this baby boomer, no bobby soxer, spent her free time that day commiserating with others on the internet, watching black and white film clips on CNN, and nursing grief.

My age peers just don’t get it.  Frank Sinatra had already peaked, fallen, risen, been, in short, a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king well before I was born, never mind bought my first Tiger Beat.

“Sinatra’s reactionary,” they’d point out.  “A symbol of the worst in pre-feminist macho.”  Oh, please, spare me cultural analysis by those whose grandmas spoke English.

The so-called ‘New Immigrants’ from Eastern and Southern Europe began entering this country around 1880.  Ships brought Sinatra’s parents and my own.  The flood stopped after our racial inferiority was canonized in the quota acts of 1924 and 1929.

These New Immigrants (not alone, or exclusively, but significantly) clustered in cities near Ellis Island: Brooklyn, the Bronx, Newark, Jersey City.  The guys were Frank, Tony, Bruno, Stanley, Joe, Moishe, Abe.  The women were often Maria, Sophia, Rosa.  They worked in mines, factories, construction, garbage hauling.  Sometimes the men boxed for money.  Round-cheeked grandmas made bootleg liquor.  They survived the Depression and fought, and won, World War II.

They had incredible stories.  Another Frank, laughing and proud, tells me of his Italian grandmother breaking the arm of a sweatshop foreman.  This boss used to march up and down the aisle, lifting women’s skirts, sure they couldn't resist because they were poor and foreign and if they made any quick move at the mechanized loom, they’d lose a finger or hand.  That grandma had to reverse immigrate to hide out in her village for a while. 

They spent hot summer nights on the fire escape, or went down to Coney Island and slept on the beach.  Nobody ever closed her back door and only a traveling salesman would knock. 

Everybody knew everybody else.  If you talked long enough, you would find out that my uncle knew your cousin who arrested him, or saved his life in the war, or dated his niece. 

They claimed that in the old country their aunt met Archduke Ferdinand.  That in the old country all they had to eat were potatoes. That in the old country they had to kiss the landowner's hand.  There was dark talk of whips, Cossacks, vendettas, frenzied escape. 

And they just got sick of it one day, and with just the clothes on their back and a feather quilt, they up and left and arrived with nothing, and have been scrambling ever since. 

They’d show ‘em.  They’d be more American than the flag.  But if you knew to look, you could hear the grateful, giddy greenhorn peeking through every Black jive “Cool, man,” you could see the jut in the jaw of the determined parvenu under that WASP tuxedo.  You could hear the stifled laughter.  “Ha, ha.  We made it in spite of you.”  But eventually they'd relax and you'd hear "Ach, yai," and "paison" and be fed pignoli cookies so delicious you wished you had an extra tongue.

At their best, like Sinatra, they didn't learn the white racism that didn't exist in their own countries. At their best, like Sinatra, they befriended black people and adopted and celebrated black artistic expression.  In any case, their mere confusing presence, white but not quite, gave American racism a run for its money. 

They shared everything but would take no charity.  They had gargantuan capacity for work.  Work was a necessary daily sacrament.  We'd be limp, translucent at sunset after one street game.  Grandpa would still be in the garden, bad heart and everything, sucking on his pipe, working till he dropped in place.  Decade after decade, showing up, punching the clock, everybody at the plant their buddy.

Sinatra comes from a long line of apologies.  Not just Italian; Sicilian.  On the kind of ethnic gameboard I was born on, one quickly learned that Sicilian is the lowest Wop there is.  It’s almost unbearably poignant that when he first arrived in America, Sinatra’s Sicilian father tried to increase social acceptance by calling himself Marty O’Brien.  Admit it – your heart bleeds for such a greenhorn.

Sinatra had all of 47 days of high school.  His talent purchased enough stature to be exploited by John F. Kennedy in a run for the presidency.  But not enough to be kept around after the election was won.  Bobby told his brother to end the relationship with the unsavory Sinatra.  Sinatra, son of a culture that prizes loyalty above all, was ejected like bad rubbish from the White House he’d helped win.

The side of Sinatra Bobby Kennedy found unsuitable was waspishly referred to in obituaries.  “A Hidden Dark Side,” one headline read.  Heavens.  Sinatra occasionally became angry.  He occasionally threatened those who hurt his friends.  He told his ex-wife Mia Farrow, in what sounds like self-parody, that if she wanted, he would break Woody Allen’s legs after Allen broke Farrow’s heart in the creepiest way imaginable. 

Assessments of such behavior as a hidden dark side are rooted in WASP ideals, and have no purchase for people like me.  Anger at injustice, fighting wrong, are virtues in the value system taught me.  Some people use fists more readily than words or courts.  I grew up among peasants, physically strong people.  They had fists.  They had no English, no entrée to the wider culture.  When you take away such people’s immediate outrage, when you deny them their bodies, you castrate them.  Rather, it was the values promoted in the wider culture which were crimes to us: be cold., abandon friends, do not express.

Yes, Sinatra palled around with mobsters.  He explained that mobsters were part of the saloon scene he worked in; he said, “If my name didn’t end with a vowel, I wouldn’t have had all this trouble.”

Mario Puzo, in talking about the appeal of "The Godfather," said that Vito Corleone offered disempowered people a resource they could turn to if they got screwed.  Any assessment of the Mafia would have to factor in the racism, marginalization, and desperation the New Immigrants faced.  As long as the system excludes you, you need another system.  As a friend of mine from Newark once said, "When the WASPs do it it's called ‘free enterprise;’ when we do it, it's called ‘organized crime.’”

Sinatra’s work passionately performs the New Immigrants’ remembered bruises.  The one movie role he crawled on his belly to get was not that of a macho, swaggering winner.  Sinatra pulled strings and took less than scale to play Maggio, in “From Here to Eternity.”  Maggio is a quintessential New Immigrant. His horizontal relations are good -- he’s a loyal buddy to his peers.  But he chafes at, rebels against, oppressive authority.  Skinny private Maggio takes on sadistic, powerful Sergeant Judson.  Judson, after insulting Maggio’s sister, and calling Maggio a “Little Wop,” beats Maggio to death.

Young Sinatra supported candidates to the left of the mainstream in the Democratic Party.  He won a special Academy Award for “The House I Live In,” advocating racial and religious tolerance.  He demanded that African American audience members and performers at his concerts receive equal treatment.  He raised money for civil rights.

But Sinatra, is, most importantly, a singer, and it is in this opus that I readily see the subversive Sinatra so invisible to my age, but delightful to my ethnic, peers.  I come from New Jersey, a state you mock.  It’s automatic, you don’t have to question the racism and classism behind mocking blue color Polaks and Wops jammed into culture-free urbs.  I measure success by how often I am told:  "Are you from Europe?  What!  New Jersey! You don't sound like you are from New Jersey.”  My lack of a New Jersey accent is not accidental.

Sinatra was more subversive than Kurt Cobain or Marilyn Manson.  Mobbing the field and destroying the net is a gesture limited in its appeal to our lizard brains; it leaves us sensorily starved and can’t engage as true subversion does.  It is breathtaking to watch a genius risk everything in wresting the racket from reigning stars and playing to win.  Sinatra won so unquestionably he changed the game forever. 

Sinatra played by the rules that served him.  He was immaculate.  He kept his hair, the stigmata of those hairy New Immigrants, short and neat.  He wore, not just the very best clothing, but the very best clothing for the most exclusive venues: tuxedos, always a hat. 

And then he got up on stage and presented America with a male so new shocked girls rioted to be near him.  He sang songs written for women.  He surrendered his voice, face and body to the humiliations and hopes of love with an emotional presence, intensity, intelligence and irony, that was unfamiliar to his audiences.  And Sinatra sang in a New Jersey accent.  Not just the a’s and o’s, but the architecture, the energy, the temperature, the values.  When Sinatra introduces that ethos into a song, it is no longer laughable, marginalized.  It is canonized.

He could do it, doing it meaning, for Sinatra, changing the face of American popular music forever, thanks to the unapproachable virtuosity he acquired though his own gargantuan capacity for work.  “This is how you become a singer,” he said.  “You eat songs.  You breathe songs.  You sleep songs.  Then maybe you begin to get something.”  He could do it because he endured it all, being put down by chance, fashion, love, bad health, and he came back for more, taking low paying jobs, recording bad songs like “Mamma will bark.” He could do it because, while he didn’t always follow all the rules, he made bonds of passion, he lead from his heart.

In Sinatra’s opus I hear the appetite for life, in its grittiest, least fancy forms, for camaraderie, for let's get the gang together and never sit down as long as the music is playing, that is the soul of a Polish wedding.  I hear the kind of vitality that, yes, might result in the occasional brawl, the occasional politically incorrect remark.  What do you want?  You won’t get from Sinatra the American Puritanism that sometimes manifests as a witch trial, sometimes as political correctness.  You will get life.

I hear the kind of determined appetite for life that I used to see in red nosed alcoholic uncles four times older than I who would, truly, never sit down as long as music was playing.  The dark was allowed in that energy.  The darkness came from what these people had seen.  Striking loved ones beaten to death by company thugs.  Hunger that looked like it was going to win.  The frustration of not speaking the language of anyone in power.  I hear those hard things in Sinatra, maybe just in a phrasing, maybe just in the way he caresses one word, and I get shivers.  In Sinatra's “Duets” album, he sang, for the umpteenth time, "One for my baby and one more for the road"  As ancient as he was, as many times as he had sung this song, this treatment of it was absolutely essential.  He wrung his exposed, decayed voice of every drop of pathos and meaning.  He worked that garden until he dropped in place.

This is American music, all right, but it’s American music the way Sinatra made it.  There’s no mint julep here.  No twang.  There is a saloon in Hoboken.

Sinatra has been called the first anti-hero.  Maybe so, but there’s a difference between Sinatra and some others since who just pulled down the net.  In Sinatra’s music, you get irony, but it’s not a detached irony.  Sinatra laughed, first, at his own self-deluding folly.  “I’m a fool to want you,” he confessed.  “Each time I find myself flat on my face,” he admitted.  And, “Then I go and spoil it all by saying something stupid.”  Self mocking didn’t mean that nothing mattered.  Love mattered.  Connection mattered.  Maybe he had blown it, yeah, but his blowing it didn’t mean it didn’t matter.  It mattered all the more.

“But,” you protest,” “He sang, ‘I’ve got the world on a string,’ ‘Ring a ding ding,’ ‘I did it my way.’”  Doesn’t that sound like a bully padrone?”

Maybe to some.  In Sinatra’s swagger I don’t hear, “I’m lording it over you,” I hear, “I’m jutting my chin out in spite of everything, and I’m going to give us all a good time.’”  I hear a tightrope moment of joy, joy won by the man’s own determination.  In the accent, and the ethos, I hear a triumph I can take from, participate in, at least vicariously.

People say that we feel sad when someone else dies because it is a reminder of our own mortality.  I don't feel very mortal this morning. Time feels to me like something I have so much of I can squander it typing out impassioned essays that will earn me no money and may never get published. 

But I know that world, that flavor, those values, those memories, even those accents of the New Immigrants are passing. 

Someone doing accent research says that New Yorkese, formerly so Yiddish and Irish, is becoming more Puerto Rican and Third World as immigrant populations shift. As silt in a river passes, the ethos changes, moves downstream, becomes not the color of the river but the bed for a planted field. 

I often ponder, if I ever have kids, how could I bring home to them what it was like growing up with a mother who was born in a river because my grandmother was taking a break from a hot session of sugar beet harvesting? 
Here's one way to communicate that ethos: by listening to "That's Life," or "My Way," or "A Very Good Year.”

Friday, December 4, 2015

Pres. Obama, You Have Blood on Your Hands. The San Bernardino Jihad Slaughter of Innocents

Jae C Hong Associated Press Source
Dear President Obama,

Sir, you have blood on your hands. You bear some responsibility for the deaths and wounding of the victims in San Bernardino on Thursday, December 2, 2015.

You are a leader among the PC thought police.

You see this threat in the world: Americans. Americans are stupid, bigoted, haters, lynchers, and pogromists. Americans periodically spontaneously erupt into irrational hatred of anyone who isn't like them. Americans do this with no real motivation at all.

Americans, Christians and Jews, must be constantly shoved down. They must be shamed. They must be lectured to. The must be corralled. Their thoughts must be groomed.

Americans and Christians must never be allowed to say the word "jihad" and identify it as a threat.

You, sir, have castrated the forces in this country tasked with defending American citizens. You tell protective forces never to see any connection between violent behavior and Islam.

You and other PC thought police like you have demonized any speech that serves to protect Americans.

The airline employee who took Mohammed Atta's ticket before the 9-11 terror attack knew that the man was a menace. This employee did nothing for fear of being labeled a racist.

From the press: "I said to myself, 'If this guy doesn't look like an Arab terrorist, then nothing does.' Then I gave myself a mental slap, because in this day and age, it's not nice to say things like this," Tuohey told the Maine Sunday Telegram. "You've checked in hundreds of Arabs and Hindus and Sikhs, and you've never done that. I felt kind of embarrassed."

Nidal Hasan's fellow soldiers knew he was a powderkeg. He told them so, in a powerpoint presentation that outlined why he was convinced that Muslims must commit jihad. His fellow soldiers said nothing, for fear of being labeled racist. Even the New York Times said that political correctness was responsible for Hasan's murders at Fort Hood.

Syed Farook's neighbors saw that something was up. They said nothing for fear of being labeled racist.

You, President Obama, are in the frontlines, telling the world that the most significant danger humanity faces is Americans' evil bigotry. *Even before a photograph of the the clock scammer's clock was available,* you, Barack Hussein Obama, invited that ratty little scammer and his ratty little grifter family *to the White House.*

In addition to policy, you announce through your actions that frank speech about jihad and the deadly threat it poses to Americans is taboo.

You and everyone like you who demonizes frank talk about the threat that jihad poses to non-Muslims -- you all have blood on your hands.

Dalton Trumbo Died for Your Sins: Hero Worship Makes for a Boring Film

Director Jay Roach's 2015 film Trumbo is hagiography. It worships its main character, communist screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. This is no surprise; Roach made the 2012 HBO film Game Change, a vicious hit job on Sarah Palin. Of Roach's 2008 film Recount, about the contested 2000 presidential election, James A. Baker said, "I don't think I was as ruthless as the movie portrays me, and I know [former Secretary of State Warren Christopher] was not as wimpish as it makes him appear." Roach, in short, has a history of making slanted political films.

Art makes demands, and if you don't meet them, you make bad art. For a character to be compelling, he has to have flaws, and he has to face opponents who are every bit as three-dimensional as he is. Roach's Trumbo is Santa Claus crossed with Abe Lincoln. Being a member of the Communist Party is unquestionably right; being concerned about communism's influence is a silly fixation of the less evolved. But Trumbo is, like its hero, all talk no action. All tension is bled from confrontation scenes. Trumbo's bon mots pack a Chuck-Norris wallop; Trumbo speaks and his interlocutor is reduced to gape-mouthed silence and paralysis. Trumbo locuta; causa finita est – Trumbo has spoken; the matter is finished. This stacked deck makes for a snooze-fest.

I'm ready to be wowed by any brilliant images that move onscreen, regardless of their ideology. I am Cuba, a communist propaganda film, Triumph of the Will, a Nazi propaganda film, and The Pianist, a film made by a child rapist, are all great movies. When I sat down to watch Trumbo, I was hoping for a fun re-animation of Golden Age Hollywood, vintage cars and fifties fabrics I could almost feel. Dalton Trumbo's politics were indifferent to movie-goer me. But Trumbo violates the first commandment of any art: Thou Shalt Not Bore.

Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) is the pater familias of a loving family, and the alpha male of his own rat pack of fellow Hollywood professionals who all revere him. He lives on a secluded, private lake. His exquisitely beautiful wife Cleo (Diane Lane) and loving children fill his days with joy.

The villain of the piece, and the face and voice of anti-communism, is gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, Cruella De Vil's evil twin. She's so over-the-top that she's never believable, even though she's played by Helen Mirren. John Wayne (David James Elliott) is also on hand. The real Wayne was nothing if not an iconic, galvanic screen presence; Wayne was an A-list star in five decades. Trumbo's John Wayne is merely a big, dumb, charisma-free lug who talks funny. Trumbo "defeats" Wayne by mentioning that he, Wayne, never served in the armed forces. Trumbo and Wayne's verbal sparring match is not a scintillating exploration of the issues at play. It's merely childish nyah nyah nyah. It's also a distortion. Wayne wanted to serve in the military, but for complicated health and professional reasons, he could not. He served, rather, as an inspirational artist. Surely if Dalton Trumbo and filmmaker Roach respected art, they would respect what Wayne did for his country.

Trumbo's daughter Nikola asks him if he is a communist. We are to feel sad because sweet little pigtailed Nikola has heard people say mean things about her daddy. He, ever wise, dimple-cheeked and twinkly-eyed, asks what would happen if she went to school with a big, fat ham sandwich for lunch and a schoolmate had none. She says she would share. That's communism, Trumbo instructs. Actually, no, it's not. It's Biblical. But too many filmgoers were not taught any more about communism than Nikola Trumbo, and they will fall for this scene.

Trumbo and his friends, including movie star Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg), and screenwriter Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.) meet and strategize. Hird challenges Trumbo. Hird's challenge is the closest the film comes to a real confrontation; even so it is mismatched and aborted. Louis C.K. is not a sympathetic actor. In this film, he comes across as a curmudgeon and slob who continues to smoke himself to death after losing one lung to cancer. Hird tells Trumbo that he doesn't trust him because he, Trumbo, lives on a private lake. Trumbo gives Hird an avuncular "there there, tut tut" style speech that dodges Hird's real questions. The viewer is unsatisfied. In fact Trumbo is surrounded by people with no private lake, and no ham sandwich. That he keeps his lake private, and that he sends his daughter to school with her own, private ham sandwich reveals him to be a hypocrite. The viewer knows this, even if the film thinks it can disguise it by not taking Hird's point to its logical conclusion.

There is much talk. The speakers are screenwriters and actors living glitteringly privileged lives in what, in the direct aftermath of WW II, was certainly the luckiest country on earth. The viewer waits impatiently for the real action – the viewer waits for real risk, for something to matter. The viewer wants some tension, rather than just "I'm a famous film star and I have sold one of my priceless Van Gogh paintings to pay off my lawyer."

As a moviegoer fighting off boredom, I really wanted to see Trumbo's sparring with the HUAC presented as a contest for the ages. It was not. We know he's not going to suffer all that much; we know the HUAC was not the evil or all-powerful entity the filmmakers want us to believe it was. Trumbo acts like a shifty, self-protective jerk, not like the hero the movie's onscreen texts keep insisting he was.

"Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" Trumbo attempts to sidestep the question, and like anyone under oath and under subpoena avoiding a question, he pays a price. The film never makes clear for me why Trumbo was so opposed to answering that question. Historians know why; Trumbo and the rest of the Hollywood Ten were taking orders from the Communist Party. Ron Radosh quotes Trumbo later admitting that he was participating "in a circus orchestrated by CP lawyers, all to save [ourselves] from punishment." A moviegoer shouldn't have to turn to Ron Radosh after watching a film to understand the main character's motivation. Trumbo fails as storytelling not just because it doesn't tell the truth. It doesn't even bother to weave together a coherent lie.

Trumbo is sent to prison for contempt of Congress. An African American inmate threatens and curses him as a traitor. This same inmate is shown greatly enjoying a pro-American John Wayne movie. Trumbo's eyebrows rise sardonically, but he says nothing. The suggestion is that proletarian Americans, white and black, are idiots bamboozled by propaganda into betraying their class interests. The film lacks the courage to state this overtly; the superior viewer's eyebrows are meant to rise in comradely consensus with Trumbo's. If the film had spelled out this point overtly, the viewer might take the thought to its logical conclusion: Trumbo, just like the John Wayne movie within it, is just more Hollywood propaganda, attempting to brainwash the viewer, whose role is to be putty in the filmmaker's hands.

After his prison stint, Trumbo sells his ranch and moves to a lovely suburban home. We are meant to pity him because he now must swim in a pool, not a private lake. The utter hypocrisy of a movie championing a communist while simultaneously wringing pity from its proletarian audience for a man who trades a private lake for a suburban swimming pool is apparently lost on the filmmakers.

Trumbo sets up a cottage industry. He and other blacklisted writers crank out scripts under assumed names. Trumbo is repeatedly shown writing while soaking in a bathtub, smoking with a cigarette holder, drinking booze and popping Benzedrine. Trumbo manages to write two Academy-Award-winning films, Roman Holiday and The Brave One. John Goodman stars as Frank King, a grade-z filmmaker who hires Trumbo to write schlock. When anti-communists try to interfere with King's employ of Trumbo, King pulls out a baseball bat, smashes his own office, and promises the anti-communist activist, "I make movies for money and pussy. I am getting both. If you interfere, this baseball bat is the last thing you will ever see."

Hedda Hopper is livid. She insists that Hollywood shut off the flow of scripts by blacklisted writers. She threatens one of Hollywood's most formidable powerbrokers, M-G-M chief Louis B. Mayer. She will reveal to America that he is Jewish, as are the heads of many of the other studios.

There are three problems with this scene. First, it is a rip-off from the 1999 HBO film RKO 281. In that film, Hedda Hopper, Louella Parsons, and William Randolph Hearst similarly threaten studio bosses. The scenes play in the exact same key, beginning with cozy familiarity in a studio executive's office and ending with a contemptuous threat. I guess Trumbo's screenwriter, John McNamara's, attitude is that "property is theft" and that he can take what he wants, including another screenwriter's scene.

There's another problem with the scene. Did HUAC-era Americans really not realize that people like Sam Goldwyn and Edward G. Robinson were Jewish? Radio star Father Charles Coughlin hammered at "Jewish" Hollywood in the 1930s, as did Henry Ford. Gentleman's Agreement had come out in 1947.

In any case, there's a more serious problem. The Soviet system Trumbo allied himself with was murderously anti-Semitic. The film never so much as alludes to that. The film hides Soviet persecution of Jews but depicts American anti-communists as rabid anti-Semites. This is a brutally cynical manipulation of the audience.

Nikola Trumbo (Elle Fanning is the older Niki) grows up; she and her father lock horns. The source of tension between Trumbo and his family is that he works too hard. He earns too much money. He is too dedicated. He is making them too secure. And he never has time to relax, and he drives to his daughter's civil rights meeting to give her a ride home. At the end of a completely flat father-daughter confrontation scene, the previously bratty, teenage Nikola melts in the great man's presence and admits that she wants to be just like her heroic dad. Trumbo, at work and at home, is a man among men.

Trumbo is shown offering his front fifty percent of the fee for a script. The front asks for only ten percent. Trumbo is also shown paying back Edward G. Robinson for the money he had donated to the legal defense of Hollywood communists. What a guy!

The arrival of director Otto Preminger pumps some life into this lifeless movie. Preminger throws his weight around in a vaguely diabolic, certainly Teutonic way. Christian Berkel, who plays Preminger, is a German actor who speaks English beautifully. In Trumbo, though, Berkel adopts a bizarrely fake-sounding accent. There's something symptomatic about the inauthenticity of Trumbo that it required a German actor to adopt a ridiculously counterfeit German accent to play a German-speaking director. Dean O'Gorman fares much better as film star Kirk Douglas. Preminger and Douglas announce publicly that Trumbo wrote the scripts for their films Exodus and Spartacus. President John F. Kennedy crosses an American Legion picket line to see a Trumbo film; the blacklist is broken; Hedda Hopper cries a single tear. The End.

Trumbo depicts Hollywood as revolving around Dalton Trumbo. But Hollywood is notoriously not a writer's town. F. Scott Fitzgerald, the author of the great American novel, drank himself to premature death in Hollywood after being fired from uncredited work on Gone with the Wind. Hollywood writers sold their intellectual property and more powerful producers, directors and stars controlled rewrites. Writers' names might or might not appear on their own work. As Raymond Chandler said, in Hollywood "the writer is revealed in his ultimate corruption. He asks no praise, because his praise comes to him in the form of a salary check. In Hollywood the average writer is not young, not honest, not brave, and a bit overdressed."

Kirk Douglas, now 98, remembers that Trumbo worked very quickly and didn't hesitate to throw out scenes that his superiors objected to. Churning out scenes at rapid-fire pace and a willingness to jettison scenes when demanded by your paymaster to do so is not the behavior of an artist, it's the behavior of a hack. Trumbo's writing was good but it does not elevate him to the status of a scriptwriter like Joseph Mankiewicz, Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges or Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin.

The bigger lie, of course, is the film's treatment of communism. Soviet communism murdered tens of millions of innocent human beings. The USSR did have spies active in the US. They did do damage. Dalton Trumbo did obey party dictates to insert communist material into scripts. Concerned Americans had very good reasons to want to know from influential cultural leaders "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?"

Hollywood's communists and former communists were not sent to a Gulag. They lost jobs. They got other jobs. Some, like Elia Kazan and Edward G. Robinson, went on to further successes. That really isn't the life-or-death struggle the makers of endless blacklist films want it to be.

When leftists have been in power, they, too, have eliminated their perceived ideological opponents from earning a living. Trumbo himself admitted to participating in the crushing of authors and works that did not agree with his ideology. Today, left-wingers on college campuses have all but eliminated anyone to their right from consideration for tenure-track employment. Facts like these would be welcome in any deep, rich, complex treatment of the life of a Dalton Trumbo. But Trumbo is not a rich film. It is simpleminded and black and white.

There's a scene I would love to see in the next Trumbo film. Someone asks him, "You say that conscience is primary to you, not money. Well, good then. Risk losing Hollywood money. Live for your conscience. You say that communism is the ideal path for humanity, and that it is an historical inevitability. Again, good. Openly write communist material. Stop the charade. Others – both on the right and on the left – openly live what they believe. Why not you?" I'd need to hear the answer a Dalton Trumbo would supply to that question to find any value in any future blacklist film. Be assured, there will be more. Such a film might actually make me feel some sympathy for Trumbo. This film did not.

This review appears at FrontPage Magazine here