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How Is This Even Possible?

(Reflections on a Numerical Milestone)

by Paul Schatzkin
November 15, 2020 

For the past few months, I have been looking at this photo and thinking I should have something to say about it pertinent to the occasion of my 70th birthday. 

These are “the Schatzkin men.”  In the center, my father, Harvey; on the left, my brother, Arthur; on the right, yours truly.  The photo was taken in our backyard in Rumson, New Jersey in March, 1954 (note the white picket fence in the background).   I was 3.  Arthur was 6, and Harvey… well, we didn’t know it at the time, but Harvey had only a few years left on the planet: multiple myeloma dispatched him in 1958 at the age of 37. 

Arthur died in 2011, just a month shy of his 63rd birthday.   Glioblastoma – the same kind of brain cancer that nicked Ted Kennedy and John McCain.  “Heart disease runs in some families,” my brother’s widow said at the time. “In your family it’s cancer.” 

So here I am, having outlived them all, the only one of “the Schatzkin men” with a first-person need to learn how to spell “septuagenarian.” 

How is this even possible?

Mickey Mantle ca. 1951 (not a Schatzkin)

Before I try to answer that question, let’s talk about Mickey Mantle. (What’s that you say,  you don’t know who Mickey Mantle was? Then a) you’re an idiot, and b) Google it.) 

Mickey Mantle’s father died  at age 40 – as did several other men in the Mantle family.  Hell, they all worked in the lead and zinc mines in Oklahoma, so their early demise is not altogether surprising. 

But Mickey, even though he was a strapping athlete who worked in the verdant, sunlit expanses of major league baseball, lived his life like a man who expected to experience a similar fate.  He told anybody who would listen that he had no expectation of living past 40. 

“I’m not gonna be cheated,” Mickey said during the best years of his career, and he conducted himself like a man bound and determined to pack a lifetime of living into half a lifetime. 

When those decades of hard living  and hard drinking finally caught up with him – well after his 40th birthday – Mickey would often say, “If I’d known I was gonna live this long, I’d have taken better care of myself.”

Like Mickey Mantle, I grew up expecting I was gonna be dead by 40, too. 

But in my case, the lament is more along the lines of “If I’d known I was gonna live this long, I might have planned my life a little better.” 

By which I mean, “I might have planned it at all. 

The really odd, perplexing thing is: even though I averted that Gateway of Doom for more than 30 years ago, I still live in its shadow. 

That’s despite a lifetime of therapy that started in the third grade – the  year after Harvey disappeared from the set.  Despite spending countless hours in the presence of a highly regarded (i.e. Freudian) child psychiatrist, nobody managed to figure out that I’d been traumatized by Harvey’s sudden departure.  

Guess who is going to have (at least) 67 more birthdays!?

Let’s do the math: 

Harvey Schatzkin: dead at 37. 

Arthur Schatzkin: dead at 62.

Mickey Mantle: dead at 63.

Paul Schatzkin:  hearty and hale and now 70 years old! 

How is this even possible? 

Well, for starters, it’s possible because I’m ridiculously healthy.  

Nobody is going to confuse me with Adonis or Apollo, but I get out of bed every morning, put on my sneakers and walk for two miles.  I close the fitness rings on my Apple Watch  and by the time I put it back on the charger each night I’ve walked the requisite 10,000 steps every day.

And, knock wood, in those seven decades the most serious illness I have ever had is the measles when I was a kid and a skin cancer on my leg that was thoroughly excised about 4 years ago.  That’s it.  Knock wood again.   

When I had my annual physical last spring, the doc said my blood-work numbers were nearing the threshold where I might want to start thinking about possibly doing something to bring them down.  That was about two months into Covid 2020: My weight was in the high 170s, but on the rise amid a pandemic spent sitting at home eating fistfuls of Wheat Thins in the afternoons and a hefty bowl of Cookies and Cream with Colbert just before going to bed every night. 

At the end of July I started counting calories and commenced a practice of (daily) intermittent fasting; My weight has gone from a peak in the mid-180s to the mid-160s today.   I’m gonna go see the doc tomorrow and run the numbers again to see if they aren’t below the aforementioned Threshold of Concern. In the meantime my jeans fit a lot better.  

Be it ever so humble…

So if I’ve lived this long and I’m in such good health, why do I feel I should have more to show for my time on Earth than a paid-for house, a muscle-car convertible, an old truck and a crazy cat? 

Others in my age bracket are settling into their retirement now: moving to Florida, setting up rocking chairs, counting their grandkids.  I’m still working at a part-time job and skipped the part about having kids altogether, grand or otherwise. 

Which brings me back to Mickey Mantle:  Mickey said he should have taken better care of himself, and I’m saying I should have planned my life better.  

If I hadn’t expected to be dead, maybe I would have paid more attention in school, gotten a better education and availed myself to one of those “profession” things that I keep hearing about.   

Lahaina, Maui ca. 1984 –What else do I have to do?

Instead, my academic career was most notable for bearing the label of “underachiever.” In the years when my classmates were earning their fortunes – in some cases raking in more money than a croupier at a Vegas craps table – I might have done something more lucrative than smoking vast quantities of dope and taking tourists sailing and snorkeling in Hawaii (it was a tough life, but, dammit, somebody had to do it…).

Despite my academic sloth, I did have one substantial material success in my life.    

The drugs and alcohol wore off in the late 80s. I came to Nashville in the mid 90s and, combining a little bit of knowledge of music with 15 years of experience with personal computers, I started an Internet music business – before most people had even heard of the World Wide Web.  With that enterprise I found a purpose, built a business and became part of a community.  Despite the lack of any formal training, I was  doing good work, making friends and earning the respect of colleagues. 

Ahead of the curve? I was there before there even was a curve.

But I swear to God, the whole time I thought, “I guess this means I’ll be dead soon…” 

That was 20 years ago.  The business has come and gone. I was fortunate that its demise included a “liquidity event” that paid off my mortgage and has kept me  afloat for all of those 20 years.  

Like a scene in a Monty Python movie, “I’m not dead yet…” – but I have struggled mightily to find a similar measure of purpose and commitment in the years since. 

It’s not like I didn’t do things: I wrote a biography of “The Boy Who Invented Television” – a story that his transfixed me since my years on the periphery of the TeeVee business in Hollywood in the 70s.  As that volume went into the world in the fall of 2002, I imagined that I’d embarked on a career as a “biographer of obscure 20th century scientists.” Unfortunately the fabled ‘sophomore effort  went off the rails and took that career idea with it. 

There have been several other fuses lit – that burned off into duds. 

But… wait a minute. I’m not supposed to be finding a second or third career.   I’m supposed to be dead – like my father, like my brother, like Mickey-fucking-Mantle.  

And yet…. here I am. 

How is this even possible? 

I know that part of the answer to that question is a tale of sobriety.  

“I’m not dead yet!” because “The Reverend” Gene Perkins introduced me to AA in 1987

With the help of a friend who 12th stepped me into ‘the program’ in 1987, I stopped smoking, drinking, and snorting just in time to avoid imposing my father’s fate upon myself.  I have not had a sip, a sniff, or a puff since shortly after I turned… wait for it… 37.   I did a lifetime’s worth of drinking, I just stuffed it all into half a lifetime.  Me and Mickey – except, in my case, without the incurable liver disease.

Now I reach the biblically prescribed three-score-years-and-ten wondering “why me?” and “what for?”  

The decades-long inability to find answers to such questions – and make further contributions to the household treasury beyond paying off the mortgage and spending stupid money renovating the place – might be one reason I find myself living alone at age 70.   

When my cozy domestic reality started unraveling, I discovered that I needed to supplement my income with, well…. actual income.  That’s when I discovered that the only thing I was still qualified to do was peddle gizmos at the Trillion Dollar Digital Fruit Stand. 

Like everything else, that situation changed dramatically this year. Where I once got to spend several days each week having occasionally meaningful encounters with actual other humans, for the past several months I’ve just been sitting at a computer terminal staring at a screen and listening to people mumble inaudibly about stuff they need.  A couple of times a day I get to conjure up some useful knowledge and make a modest difference in people’s lives, but mostly it’s been telling  cardholders from the International Bank of Entitlement that they cannot have the thing they want in the minute that they want it.  

Arthur @ 2-1/2, Ellen @ 29, me @ 5 weeks.

That’s when the part about ‘not having a plan’  starts to gnaw at me.  I start to think “this is not what I had in mind…” for this stage of my life.  Then I remember, “Oh yeah, I never really had anything in mind for this stage.  I didn’t expect there would even be a ‘this stage’.” 

Which is when I stop thinking about the male side of the family and wonder if maybe I got a longevity gene from my mother’s side of the family.  She lived until she was 81. In fact, she got married for the third time when she was 73.  

Maybe that’s why, along with all the other thoughts percolating above, I keep circling back to this vague idea that I will (or should?) do something remarkable with my 70s.

“I took the tablets an hour ago. I’ll be gone by midnight.”

Given my continued good health (did I mention knocking on wood?) it’s not unreasonable to surmise that – like my mother – I’ve got a good ten more years before faculties fade and organs start breaking down and I have to face the decision that Ruth Gordon made in “Harold and Maude” (you can Google that, too). 

Then I catch myself, and begin to question this whole fixation, this lingering self-and-social pressure that I am supposed to “do” and “strive” and “accomplish.” 

I recall something Kurt Vonnegut (admittedly, no slouch in the “doing” and “accomplishing” departments) said: “I am a human being, not a human doing.”

And then it dawns on me:  Maybe I’ve finally reached the point where I can stop obsessing on the “doing” part of life and just make the best of the “being” part. 

Maybe, in the eighth decade of my life, that’s enough.  

It’s certainly more than Harvey and Arthur – and Mickey – were doing at this point in their lives.

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This is 70 (OK, I took it last night, so it’s actually 69+365 (since 2020 is a 366-day leap year)

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(Care to comment?  I think we’ll gather most of  them here at Facebook; in the space below if you’ve managed to get yourself out of roach motel….)

You Think You Know Me?

A few things I have written and posted to this website that offer some insight to the the journey I’ve even on over the past few years..,.

Posted November, 2020:

How Is This Even Possible?

 

From January, 2017:

Where’d Paul Go??

From April, 2019:

Are You Done Yet?

 

From September, 2019: 

The Dead Cat Christmas

And a bit of prior personal history:

The Summer of ’62

Posted March, 2017:

Harvey and the Lionel Trains

 

Posted May 2018

Return to Brigadoon

 

Posted May, 2018: 

Trauma, Nostalgia and Closure 

Posted May, 2018:

Whoever Said “You Can’t Go Home Again”…?

Where’s Buster?

Well, she’s not on Facebook or Instagram, that’s for darn sure.

Because I deactivated both of those accounts about six weeks ago.

I probably need to write some kind of essay about why I finally pulled the plug on those accounts (deactivated but not deleted), how the “poke-and-scroll” impulse was making me nutz, how the past year of pandemic-induced solitude had magnified that impulse at the same time it reset my internal clock, etc. etc.

It’s complicated, but I have to say that I really do feel a whole lot more coherent without those nagging temptations, and I don’t really miss the illusion of  “social” contact at all.

Too many times over the past year, I have described my use of Facebook (in particular, social media in general) the same way  that I felt about vodka and Scotch in the last couple of years before I quit drinking (in November of 1987; 34 years if I’m still breathing come Thanksgiving).

Now I have gone ‘cold turkey’ and that experience echoes: when I first quit drinking and started going to AA meetings, I told myself “I’ll give this 30 days…”  At 30 days, I figured I could go 60, and somewhere between 60 and 90 days I became DDFL – your Designated Driver For Life.

It’s been about two months since I shut those accounts down, and it feels like it did between 60-90 days when I quit drinking – like I could be a social-media avoiding lifer.

If I had any ambition left, I would be making some kind of concerted effort to round up those Facebook friends that I really want to stay in touch with and encourage them to sign up for the “Weekly Digest” that I set up for this site years ago.  Maybe I’ll get to that yet.

In the meantime, the one thing I did with any consistency over the past year was post frequent photos of my Covid Kitty, the gender-neutrally named female cat called “Buster.”

Some people who have asked about my Facebook disappearance tell me they miss the #DailyBuster (even tough the posts were not exactly daily).  I haven’t made a lot of new pictures of her over the past couple of months, but I did make one this past Sunday, so… there it is, atop this post.

If you want more, sign up for the Digest.  Maybe I’ll rename it “The Daily Buster” – regardless of the frequency, and keep posting picture of the cat here from time to time.

Now Batting: Number 39

The  Post-Covid Recollections of a Closet Dodgers Fan

“The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again.” 

— James Earl Jones as Terence Mann in Field of Dreams (1989)

 – – –

I went to Atlanta last week to see a baseball game, the first major league game I’ve been to in at least a dozen years.  I went to see the Los Angeles Dodgers play the Atlanta Braves.  

My attire for the occasion was conflicted: I wore a white Dodgers home-team jersey emblazoned  with the number ’39’ – and a Braves cap.  Other fans, many with the good sense to be wearing Braves jerseys and caps, inquired about my divided loyalties.

“I’ve been a Braves fan since I lived in Hawaii in the 1980s” I explained, “and Ted Turner’s cable station was the only live television we had out there.  That’s when I got tuned in to the Braves.  But I’ve been a Dodgers fan since I was 10.  And that’s all because of that number 39…” 

My trip to Atlanta for this afternoon of divided loyalties was, in some ways, a consequence of the pandemic. Call it “a gift of Covid.” 

I’m still sorting out the impact of the bizarre year now past,  how 14-plus months of nearly total isolation has slowed down my inner rhythms and rekindled dormant interests.  I spent a lot of my involuntary solitude reading real books.  And, curiously, a lot of those books were about baseball.  

As the pandemic relaxes its grip and a new season of baseball chases the arc of the sun from spring into summer,  I find myself interested in the game again, in a way I had not been for several years. 

Of all  the major sports, baseball is the only one I have ever had any real affinity for –  perhaps because it was the only sport I played in school that I had any ability for, even though it wasn’t much.  I never could run and bounce a ball, stop and throw it in a hoop. And given my 98-pound-weakling physique I had no business playing football at all.   Though I was never picked first for anybody’s team, I could swing a bat and occasionally hit the ball, and I recall at least one dazzling play in the infield that got me thinking I had a future as a second baseman – at least until I tried and failed to turn a double play. 

My interest in baseball faded over the past several years.  Maybe because of the way computers and the internet have rewired my brain, I lost patience for the game’s languid pace.  And once I got a TiVo, I l could no longer sit through the commercials. 

I’d try to get interested in the playoffs and World Series, but those games are interminable.  Glorious and brilliant as the essential game may be – as much as 90-feet between the bases and three-outs-per-inning are evidence of Divine Inspiration –  four-plus hours is just entirely too much baseball, especially when most of that time is filled with endlessly repeating ads for trucks and nachos. 

When the pandemic started and I found myself #HomeAlone, I started reading books about baseball.  I started with W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe – the book that inspired the movie Field of Dreams.  Then I read The Last Boy, a biography of Mickey Mantle. After that I plunged into  David Halberstam’s epic account of the season that concluded with the Cardinals facing the Yankees  in the World Series in October, 1964. Then I read a Phillip Roth book pretentiously entitled The Great American Novel which was, naturally, a satire about baseball. 

All this reading seems to have rendered two clear, positive benefits.  First, with nothing but time on my hands I rediscovered the simple pleasure of reading actual books, focusing on printed words and turning actual pages.  And I think that re-rewired my brain in way that, coming out of the pandemic, I have also rediscovered baseball.   

 *

Did I mention we wuz Yankee fans?

I grew up in the New Jersey suburbs of New York.  We were Yankee fans.  My father was raised in Manhattan, and the Yankees were New York’s team.  The Dodgers? They were the less worthy denizens of the remote cultural backwater known as Brooklyn.

Some of my earliest memories revolve around baseball.  Like that time I asked my older brother Arthur, “How long is an inning?”  

“Three outs,”  he informed me. 

“Yeah but how long does that take?” I pestered. 

“As long as it takes,” he insisted. 

That was how I learned that there is no clock in baseball.  

Other baseball memories include sitting on the bus after school one sunny October day and listening to the 7th game of the 1960 World Series – when Bill Mazeroski of the Pittsburgh Pirates hit the home run in the bottom of the 9th inning that ended the series – and Casey Stengel’s long tenure as the Yankees colorful manager. 

The following year Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris went after Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record, and we tracked their progress on a bulletin board in my 5th grade class room.

Sometime in the mid-50s, my father took Arthur to a game at Yankee Stadium, and  brought home a ball that had been autographed by a pantheon of 1950s icons like Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra.   Like idiots, though, we used that ball to actually play baseball in the backyard, and lost it in the weeds.  I imagine that ball would be worth quite a few shekels today. 

Unlike my brother – and all those talking heads in the Ken Burns Baseball documentary series – I never went to a baseball game with my father.  My mother said once that he died just as I was getting to the age where he’d started doing things with me.  Had he lived a little longer, maybe that would have included going to Yankee games. 

The only game I do recall going to as a kid, my grandfather took me and Arthur to.  It was the annual pre-season Yankees – Dodgers exhibition game, which had been a tradition in the years when those teams – and the Giants – made New York what Ken Burns called, “The Capital of Baseball.” That year, the Dodgers had to come from the other side of the country rather than from the neighboring borough of Brooklyn – since they’d moved to Los Angeles a few years earlier.  

We were seated somewhere along the first baseline, at field level.  I remember being astonished at how high a fly ball could go: on the TV, they just disappeared from the frame before falling into the fielder’s glove.  In real life, they just keep going up and up and up until they’re just another tiny white dot in the night sky.  To this day when I go to a ball game and somebody hits a towering pop fly, I am amazed at how high they go – once again an 8 year old is following the upward trajectory and wondering if it will ever come down. 

Maybe because that first real baseball game was between the Yankees and the Dodgers, I have always felt that the best outcome to any baseball season is a Yankees-Dodgers World Series – like that Series in 1977 when Reggie Jackson hit all those home runs.  

When the Yankees and the Dodgers play, I don’t really care who wins.  I can cheer for  every seeing-eye single, every dazzling catch in the outfield and every split-second double play.  I can simply dwell in the explosive, athletic artistry of baseball.  The Dodgers scored?  Great.  A Yankee struck out with two outs and the bases loaded?  That’s great too.  Just keep throwing, hitting, running and catching.  Baseball is the only game that can transcend any moment and ride the relentless, infinite crest of its history. 

That was our baseball heritage, to the extent we had any; we were New Yorkers living in New Jersey, and our team was the Yankees.  The Brooklyns were a lesser breed  who had abandoned the grungy city and moved to some sunny place called California. 

But there is another reason why I could root for the Dodgers and/or the Yankees, why I was always a ‘closet’ Dodgers fan. 

Because in the 4th grade I read a biography of a Brooklyn Dodgers catcher named Roy Campanella. 

*

Roy Campanella

I don’t recall how that book first fell into my hands back in 1960, and until I re-read it along with the other baseball books I read during the Pandemic Summer, I really didn’t remember much of the actual story.  I’d forgotten that the man’s name was ‘Campanella’ because his father was a white Italian immigrant who had married a black woman from Philadelphia.  That one drop of Negro blood was all it took for Roy to be regarded as 100% black, and consigned to the Negro Leagues for much of his baseball career. 

What I do recall vividly – some 60 years since I first read it – is that that book opened my eyes to the truth of America that they weren’t teaching us about at the Forrestdale School.  From that book I learned about racial discrimination and inequality in the country that my all-white suburban elementary school taught me was  the land of the free, where “all men are created equal.”  From Roy Campanella’s story, I learned that there was – literally – a dark side to the “liberty and justice for all” that we pledged allegiance to every day when we stood with our hands over our hearts and saluted the flag. 

And I learned from that book how a white man named Branch Rickey took a giant stride toward alleviating centuries of injustice by sending a black man named Jackie Robinson onto a grassy green field in the heart of Brooklyn to play a child’s game with white men. 

Even in the 4th grade I knew, if vaguely, that  Jackie Robinson was the first Negro to play Major League baseball. Robinson’s  name is now enshrined not only in the annals of baseball history, but in the annals of American history as well.  His number 42 is retired from all the teams in both the major and minor leagues, and every April 15 is Jackie Robinson day, when every player on every team wears that revered number 42.  

Everybody remembers who came  first. 

But I remember the man who came second. 

Now batting for the Brooklyn Dodgers, three times the National League’s Most Valuable Player and eight times an All-Star, the catcher,  number 39:  Roy Campanella. 

Campy could have been first.  He had played in the Negro Leagues in the 1930s and 40s, and was signed to the Dodgers farm system 1946, the same year as Jackie Robinson.  But when it came to finally breaking the color barrier that the Major Leagues had quietly enforced since the 1880s, Mr. Rickey chose the grittier Robinson to face – and face down – the taunts of opposing teammates and fans.  Campanella made it to ‘the show’ the following year, after Robinson had proven that black players were just as deserving as any white player and carried the Dodgers to the 1947 World Series – where, of course, they lost to the damn Yankees. 

Roy Campanella posted a lifetime batting average of 276, knocked in nearly a thousand RBIs, hit 242 home runs (putting him at #11 on the catchers lifetime homers list), was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1969 and according to legend one of the happiest players whoever put on a uniform and glove. 

All that came to a screeching, glass-and-bone-shattering end for Roy Campanella one frigid night in the winter of 1958, when his Chevy sedan skidded on a patch of ice, hit a telephone pole and flipped over.  This was well before seatbelts were required in all cars, and the accident tossed Campanella around in the front seat, breaking his neck and leaving him paralyzed from the shoulders down.  

His biography describes how Campanella almost gave up on life, but gradually came to accept his condition and rehabilitate some of the use of his arms and hands.  He remained confined to a wheel chair for the rest of his life, but I was mightily impressed with the way the Dodgers organization took care of him.  When the team moved west before the 1958 season, they took Campanella with them and kept him on as a coach. Over the following four decades he remained one of the most revered members of the Dodgers staff. 

*

Roy Campanella at Dodger Stadium, flanked by Hall of Fame pitchers Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax

I lived in Los Angeles twice, first in the 1970s, and again for two years in the early 1990s.  I went to a game at Dodger Stadium in the spring of spring of 1993.  I don’t remember anything about the actual game – who the Dodgers played, any spectacular hits or plays in the field, or who won. 

All I remember is one moment after the game.  

I was on my way out of the stadium when I looked up the concourse and saw him: in his wheelchair, wearing a dark blue suit and a smile, waiting for an elevator, only a few yards away in the flesh: the 71-year-old Roy Campanella.  

I wanted to approach him. I wanted to say something to him.  I wanted to thank him – for being alive, for living such a magnificent life, for overcoming his injuries and disabilities and remaining an inspiration.  

But… 

I whiffed it.  

I let the moment pass, and regretted that choice the instant I’d left the stadium.  

A few weeks later I regretted that decision even more, when came the news that Roy Campanella was finally well and truly safe at home: he died in June, 1993.

This spring, after re-reading that biography I had first read in the 4th grade and a small trove of other books about baseball, I am interested again in the one game that has been a constant through all the years, the only thing about America that has survived all the steamrollers and  blackboard erasures.  And in these moments of rediscovery I’ve done something that had never occurred to me to do before: I bought a baseball jersey.  I found a website  where I could get a vintage Dodgers jersey with whatever number I wanted, and I sent off almost $200 for a jersey with the number 39.   

“B” is for “Brooklyn”

Along with the Dodgers jersey, I bought a bright blue cap emblazoned with the white letter “B” that the Dodgers wore for all those years they were the heart and soul of Brooklyn.  I wear that hat often, and it is heartening when somebody stops and asks me what that “B” is for.

“No, it’s not for Boston,” I usually have to start out. “It’s for Brooklyn.  Surely you know the Dodgers played there long before they moved to L.A., right? And do you know about Roy Campanella?  No?  Then let me tell you…” and off I go with how this man’s half-forgotten story opened my eyes to the underlying truth of American mythology – and made me a life-long Dodgers fan. 

Every one of those conversations  ends with an account of that day on the concourse at Dodger Stadium, seeing Roy Campanella in his wheel chair, waiting for an elevator and how I wish I’d said something. 

I suppose I have a lot of regrets in life.  It would be ludicrous to think that I could spend 70 years stumbling around on this planet without compiling a considerable list. Girlfriends come and gone, a couple of marriages (but no kids), opportunities squandered, friends and fortunes made and lost. 

Nor can I think of even a handful of people who, over the course of those seven decades, have truly changed my life.  But  countless times over the years I have told the story of the book that I read when I was in the 4th grade, and of the ebullient black baseball player whose story wrapped itself around the heart of a ten year old white boy. 

That afternoon on the concourse at Dodger Stadium, I had my opportunity to close the circle – and I let it get away from me.  

I understand myself and my country better because of him, but in that moment I just couldn’t think of how to say, simply, “thank you” to number 39, Roy Campanella – the second Negro to play baseball in the Major Leagues.  

– – – – 

Braves cap, Dodgers Jersey – and Guy Tucker, a kindergarten classmate who lives in Atlanta. We connected via Facebook but had not actually seen each other since about the time that photo of “The Little Yankee” (above) was taken.

Seasons of Solitude – My Pandemic Year

(or: How I spent My WinterSpring SummerFall Vacation). 

(This post is a revision of an earlier opus posted to coincide with the actual anniversary of the pandemic/quarantine.  That version was more than 4,500 words.  Shortly after I posted it I learned that the Nashville writers collective The Porch is compiling an anthology about the plague year, with a maximum word count for submissions of 3,000 words.  So I cut and revised, submitted what follows on  March 25, 2021, and still await a verdict re: acceptance or rejection. In the meantime, the guidelines say that posting to my own blog is ‘fair game.’)

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1. Winter: #HomeAlone

March 13, 2021 marked a full year of the condition I’ve recorded in my journals and social media posts as “#HomeAlone.” I guess that was #HomeAlone Day 366 – since 2020 was a leap year.

Maybe it’s enough to say that a full year into the pandemic, I am still among the living. There are now more than two-and-a-half million Covid victims around the world who cannot say the same.

We have lived through a full cycle of seasons with Covid. It started in the winter of 2020, tore through the spring, the summer and the fall, and now here we are in the spring of 2021. Even with the vaccines, it could be a another full cycle before we can return to whatever passed for ‘normal’ before the virulent little bug first appeared.

Everybody on stage for the finale: Dave Olney tribute/memorial at the Belcourt – March 9, 2020

The last public event I attended was a tribute concert for the iconic singer/songwriter David Olney (Spotify link) – who died suddenly after collapsing on a stage in Florida in January, 2020. As friends and fans gathered the evening of Monday, March 9 at the Belcourt Theater in Nashville, there was casual recognition that something ominous was in the air, but it had yet to dawn on anyone that this might be the last concert we would attend for more than a year.

I worked my part-time job – peddling gizmos for a tech retailer – at the mall in Green Hills on Tuesday March 10 and Wednesday March 11 – which was the day the World Health Organization declared that the novel Corona virus had become a Global Pandemic. My customer interactions that day were normal, but I second-guessed myself after shaking hands a couple of times. By the end of the second day, co-workers and I had resorted to hand waves and fist bumps.

The next two days I was not scheduled to work. I watched too much TeeVee news, read too many online accounts, and tried to make sense of the invisible asteroid that was about to smash into the planet. I tried to separate useful information from the bubbling brew of hysteria. And I wondered how I was going to explain to my employer that because I was born while Harry S Truman was president, I am in the “high-risk-for-mortality” age bracket – and maybe I shouldn’t be coming into work for a while?

The day before my next scheduled shift, I called the store and said, “I’m a little concerned about coming to work today.” A few hours later the woman who runs the whole operation called back and said, “OK, we will take you off the schedule – and find someway to keep you on the payroll until you can come back.”

As I told my therapist at the time, that was such a moment of unexpected and unconditional support that it nearly brought me to tears. Actually, strike the “nearly.”

The next day my company closed all of its more than 300 stores in the U.S. and sent tens of thousands of employees home. The whole world went into panic mode and started running out of toilet paper.

And I started using the hashtag #HomeAlone. I’ll stop using it when I return to work in the store.

 

2. Spring: Expanding Waistline

I had started using a grocery delivery service a couple of months earlier; Once I entered the “I’m not leaving the house” zone, I came to rely even more heavily on such services.

Knowing the risks they were taking, I tipped the drivers generously. And I imagine I was quite the comic vision in bright yellow rubber gloves, washing and rinsing all the packages in the kitchen sink before putting them in the cupboards.

Thankfully, I already had more than enough toilet paper for the one person in the house who needs it once a day, but I might have started over-stocking on certain other staples. The freezer in my basement is still provisioned with a six-month supply of frozen proteins, and I still get weekly deliveries of fresh milk, orange juice, and eggs. And Oreos. Oreos have become my Quarantine Comfort food. I’m quite certain that I have single-handedly kept Nabisco in business for the past year.

It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that I really didn’t do much for the first few months besides eat. What I did do was get fat on Wheat Thins and cheese in the afternoons and a honkin’ bowl of Purity Cookies and Cream that I scarfed down with some late-night comedy around 10 o’clock every evening. From March to July I went from 173 pounds and jeans that were already a bit tight in the waist to 184 pounds – and the next size larger jeans.

Once it became apparent that nobody was going anywhere to do anything for months to come, the commentaries in my daily newsfeed ran the gamut from “don’t feel guilty about not doing anything during a pandemic!” to “use this time to do all the projects you’ve been putting off!” I did a bit of both.

Harvey Schatzkin & Ellen Gould, ca. 1943

On the ‘get busy!’ front, I played my guitar some, and returned to a project that has been lurking on the back burner for a couple of years.

I have in my basement a scrapbook stuffed with all of the letters that my parents exchanged in 1943 – the year between when they met and when they were married in January of 1944.

Most of that time future-father Harvey was deployed to a weather station in Greenland (you’d be surprised how vital weather information from the arctic circle was to the aviation war effort in Europe); Future mother Ellen stayed home in St. Louis, and they exchanged the sort of letters that war-time love stories are made of.

A while back, I’d started reading those letters, using voice-recognition software to transcribe them into digital text. Now with nothing but time on my hands I returned to that undertaking, reading and dictating several of the letters every day.

Harvey and Ellen’s letters, aka “The Pile.”

I am drawn to the letters in part because I never really knew my father. He died from cancer in 1958, at the age of 37; I was only 7 at the time – the age, my mother said later, when he was just starting to do things with me – like the night in October, 1957 when he took me out to see if we could find Sputnik wandering among the stars.

From his letters, I can tell that my father was a man of humor and depth – and was, uncommonly, passionately devoted to the woman he would marry and father three children with. Thanks to Covid and the afternoons spent combing through those letters, I have over the past year spent more time ‘in the presence of my father’ than I did in the few years when were both alive.

 

3. Summer: Life Is Better With The Top Down

As the months wore on, my part-time job went through numerous work-at-home iterations. To its credit, while millions were being fired or furloughed, my employer kept everybody on the payroll. But there really wasn’t a whole lot for us to do.

For the first few months, we did a lot of video conferencing, studying online manuals and guides to keep our knowledge and skills sharp in the event we returned to the store.

The store tried to reopen in the spring and called us all in for some “socially distanced” sales training.

It was weird driving into town for the first time in months, though it did occur to me that one upside of a global pandemic is the relative absence of traffic. It had been so long since I’d been to work, I had to consciously remind myself of the route that I take from my home in Pegram to the Mall in Green Hills: “Oh yeah, I get off the Interstate here… I turn here… wait, where the hell is everybody? Oh, look, plenty of places to park.”

Walking into the the Mall, I got my first taste of who was or was not wearing a mask – and I discovered how irritated I get whenever I see somebody with a mask that doesn’t cover their nose. I’m writing this nine months later and that still pisses me off – but I have learned to stifle my irritation – if barely.

With Covid case numbers still rising, the reopening date was postponed once… twice. When it was postponed the third time, they didn’t even bother to reschedule. The store stayed closed all summer and well into the fall.

In July, the company sent us specially configured computers so that we could join the online-and-telephone sales force. I am now a telemarketer.

I am genuinely grateful for the benefits my company has continued to provide – like health insurance (even though I am old enough to qualify for Medicare), weekly Covid tests and generous discounts on all the gizmos that I have come to rely on even more heavily in all these months of digitally-mediated isolation.

And I must admit that that those bi-weekly pay checks provide an essential buffer between daily deliveries from Amazon and having to compete with the cat for food.

When my shifts ended early enough – especially after Daylight Savings kicked in – I amused myself with almost daily drives in my Mustang convertible along the curvy backroads of this part of Tennessee on the outskirts of Nashville that I like to call “West Bumfuque.”

When there isn’t much else going on in your daily life, there is a lot to be said for putting on a cap and sunglasses, putting the top down – and downshifting and stepping on the gas coming out of the backcountry curves while a carefully curated playlist throbs from the stereo.

They said I’d never find what I was looking for: a Mustang Convertible with 6-speed manual transmission. But there it is, even in the color I wanted: Ruby-Fucking-Red.

Since there are no passing lanes along my routes, my idea of an “an achievement” in those days was going the whole 15 or 20 mile route without getting stuck behind a slower car in front of me. Suffice it to say my average speed was well above the posted limits.

Every such excursion reminded me how fortunate I am to live in the country, and offered a new appreciation for the fresh-cut fragrance of a farm no matter how fast I drove past it. But I did wonder if the people I zoomed past noticed, perhaps saying to one another “there goes that crazy guy in the red Mustang again!” – and again, and again.

I remember how anxious I was the first time I had to stop for gas. One of the info-nuggets that circulated during the early Days of Covid was that the virus could be transmitted through physical surfaces like a gas-pump handle. I adopted the practice of carrying my yellow rubber gloves with me when I went to the gas station. I panicked slightly one time when I left the store after paying and opened the door with my bare left hand instead of my gloved right.

Maybe it’s just fatigue after nearly a year, but I am less reluctant now to enter public spaces – though I still prefer curb-side delivery. Recently I ran to a restaurant in town to pick up a take-out order. While I was there I observed a surprising number of people seated at tables – and wondered if there was a revolver on each table with a single bullet in the chamber.

 

4. Fall: The Social Dilemma

Like everybody else in the world, I have defaulted to a virtual reality. Almost all of my social interaction is through screens of one kind or another. My laptop and tablet are always on, relentlessly tempting me into the bottomless abyss of doomscrolling.

Even more so than before the pandemic, Facebook has knotted itself into the daily fabric of my life. Here in the Covid Bunker, Facebook offers the persistent illusion of social contact and stimulation – in its compulsive, simulated way, filling the vacuum that forms in the absence of a real world.

It’s hard to separate the good that Facebook sometimes does from its insidious side-effects.

On the one hand, through Facebook I recently recently struck up a correspondence with a dear friend from junior high school I hadn’t spoken to for several years. When she wondered about my near daily #HomeAlone posts, I informed her of my divorce two years ago. We’re in the same boat, so to speak – only 2,000 miles apart.

There is also a group page keeps me connected with my neighborhood out here in West Bumfuque. Early in the lockdown, when the grocery stores ran out of staples, one of those neighbors supplied with me a huge bottle of ketchup.

On the other hand, Facebook is a relentless distraction, never more than a mouse-click away, and the cultural impact of its pernicious surveillance model has been widely documented.

I feel the same way about Facebook that I felt about Scotch and vodka before I quit drinking – but I’ve been saying that for years. For now, though, social media is the easiest place to go when I feel the need to unload some snark and irony – or if I just want people to see that I really – literally! – haven’t gone anywhere.

My “Work-At-Home” Station

My work has gone entirely online. Three-and-a-half days each week, I take calls from people all over the country, usually telling them why they are not going to get the gizmo they want when they want it – and asking sarcastic, rhetorical questions like “you do know we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, don’t you?”

 

Back in October, after one particularly arduous shift, a woman I’d ‘swiped right’ with started sending me text messages, and I just wasn’t in the mood.

That’s when I put a name on the condition that defines my year.

I have been living in an “Isolation Feedback Loop.”

I am alone, and, yes, it gets lonely. Now leave me alone.

 

5: Redux: Winter and Spring – Again

Given my age, the case numbers and the unfathomable death toll over the past year, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that staying healthy has been no mean feat. As fellow Boomer Fran Lebowitz put it it in a recent NPR interview, “I think I’ve been excellent at not getting Covid – because I have not gotten it.”

Staying alive has mostly meant staying #HomeAlone. It’s just me and my screens and Buster the Demon Cat, who showed up over Memorial Day weekend thanks to a (mostly) Facebook friend. See? There’s that whole Facebook conundrum again.

Click the picture  to see all the “Daily Buster”s

Buster is my constant companion, following me all over the house as I make my daily commutes from the bedroom to the kitchen to the office to the living room and back to the bedroom. Every morning begins with her nestled in my arms, nuzzling my chin and purring her little heart out while I type in my journal.

While friends and acquaintances have turned this year into a period of extraordinary output – writing books, writing and recording songs and posting an infinite stream of Facebook Lives and videos on YouTube – the only thing I have done with any consistency is make photos of Buster and put them on Instagram and Facebook. When my grandkids ask, “Grandpa, what did you do during the pandemic?” I’ll just say “I put cat pictures on the Internet.”

Oh, wait.. I don’t have any grandkids – even though I turned 70 back in November. I had a step-granddaughter for a while, but lost her in the divorce, too.

One upside of all this solitude was rediscovering extended, linear concentration in the form of an ancient information technology called “books” – which I read sitting on my deck, watching the sunset while hummingbirds hovered at the feeders overhead.

Honestly, it hasn’t been all solitude and screens. I’ve had a few lunches with friends – outside, on sunny autumn days. I’ve gone for hikes in the park. I have spoken with neighbors that I hadn’t spoken to since the divorce (“I got the house but she got the neighbors…”). And, speaking of my domicile, I see my housekeeper every other Tuesday. I can’t imagine the squalor I’d be living in were it not for her.

But I can count the total number of hugs I have had since March, 2020 on the fingers of one hand.

From peak-to-trough, minus 30+ lbs

At the end of July, my Wheat-Thins-and-Ice-Cream-Quarantine-Diet peaked the scale at almost 185 lbs, and even the expanded-waist jeans I was wearing were starting to bind. That’s when I decided to try a regimen “Interim Fasting” that I learned about – where else but? – on Facebook. In my case, “fasting” mostly means I stopped eating those honking bowls of ice-cream every night at 10:30.

I walk four to six miles around my neighborhood every day, repeating the route so often that I’m surprised there is no rut in the pavement. I use an app to count my calories, and on March 4 I hit my goal weight of 155 lbs – the first time my weight has had a “150-handle” since I was in my 20s.

As March, 2021 draws to a close, I am – thanks to my advanced age and, at last, a competent Federal government – fully vaccinated.

As the prospect of a return to some semblance of normalcy shines over the horizon, I am beginning to detect the visceral changes that this year has imposed.   I seem to be going through the world very differently. Maybe spending an hour or two nearly every day just walking at three miles an hour has rewired my internal wheel-works.  Maybe that explains why I have found new comfort in books and words on paper and less patience for words on screens.

A few weeks ago, some prophet scrawled on a New York subway wall that “after the plague came the Renaissance.” There is good reason now to shed the gloom of the past year and begin to imagine the world reborn – the bright light that will shine upon us as we emerge from this long, dark tunnel.

When the pandemic is over, I’ll be able to say that I survived. I hung out with my dead parents. I put cat pictures on the Internet. I kept my job and learned new skills. I lost 30 pounds. And I read more books in a year than I read in the five years prior.

I didn’t get sick, and I didn’t die.

Now, where are my shades?

The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls…

Unity: April 10, 1865 – 2015

appomattox

April 10 – 1865 / 2015

People who know their Civil War history recall that Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant when they met in the parlor of the McLean House near the village of Appomattox Courthouse in Western Virginia the morning of April 9, 1865.

Less known is the story of their second ‘interview’ the following morning.

Grant knew that Lee only had the authority to surrendered his own defeated Army of Northern Virginia, which had been the primary military force of the Confederacy.  Lee did not have the authority to surrender any of the other armies still in the field or, for that matter, the Confederacy itself. 

The morning of April 10, 1865, Grant summoned Lee to a second meeting.  They met on horseback for roughly a half hour, on a ridge surrounded by the mist of a cool spring morning.  Grant urged Lee to use his influence on the other generals to likewise surrender and put down their arms. 

That moment was recreated – at the exact time, in the exact spot, and under very similar conditions – 150 years later as part of the Civil War Sesquicentennial.  

I spent a fair amount of time over those four years working with @Thomm Jutz @Peter Cronin and @Karen Cronin and many of Nashville’s finest singers and songwriters on “The 1861 Project” – a collection of three CDs of original recordings about the Civil War. 

I did all the photography for that project, and went to several re-enactments over those years – Fort Donelson and Bull Run (among others), and finally Appomattox.  I had hoped to photograph the recreation of Lee’s surrender and perhaps recreate the paintings that have survived that period, but alas, that task fell to a photographer sanctioned by the US Parks Department. 

But somehow, I managed to get myself in the right place at the right time for the re-enactment of that second encounter, and got this shot, which I still consider one of the defining moments of the Civil War Sesquicentennial. In post-processing I have rendered the original as a ‘digital tintype’ – a type of photography that was popular in the 19th century. 

I submitted the photo to the Parks Department to consider for merchandising at the gift shop at the Appomattox Courthouse National Park.  

A few weeks later I got their reply:  “The horses are too fat.” Jeezus. 

If the horses aren’t too fat for you, you can order prints – and read the rest of the story – from this website.

Or visit Spotify to listen to the recordings from The 1861 Project:

And see the rest of the photography here:

 

*** Wisdom From A Typewriter No. 60 ***

I might be paraphrasing a bit here. The quote went by pretty quickly in the middle of a screening of “Without Getting Killed Or Caught,” the documentary about Guy Clark (and Susannah Clark and Townes Van Zandt for good measure). He was actually recalling how he captured the refrain from his signature song, “L.A. Freeway,” which became the title of his biography by Tamara Savarino.

Watch the trailer:

*** Wisdom From A Typewriter No. 58 ***

From “The Copenhagen Trilogy” by Tove Ditlevson.

Which I read after hearing this review by John Powers on NPR:

Money quote:

With a born writer’s killer instinct, she likes to pounce on us with arresting chapter openings, such as this first sentence about her second husband, Ebbe: “Whenever I try to recall his face, I always see him the way he looked that day I told him there was someone else.”

I got some pushback from the quote above when I posted it to social media from the “everything a man says about a woman is misogyny” crowd.  Suffice it to say I don’t think they quite got my meaning.  I’m still working on it.

Sorry Boss, You Were Duped

I’m talking about your Super Bowl commercial. 

Yes, I appreciate the message.   After four years of chaos, the “Reunited States of America” is a soothing sentiment. 

But as your two-minute mini-epic rolled across my screen last night, something didn’t settle right.  

It dawned on me only slowly who I was listening to.  “Wait… I know that voice… who is that? Whoa! It’s Springsteen. Doing a commercial? Have the end-times arrived? The same guy who wouldn’t let Peter Bogdanovich use his recordings in a movie about a true-life character who loved his music – that guy was now doing a Super Bowl commercial?  

By the time I recognized the dulcet voiceover, I had already seen the Jeep logo and the unmistakeable Jeep grille and I  knew who the commercial was for.  Those frames were followed by more stirring, folksy images of The Boss in his cowboy hat, riding his Jeep around wintry midwest land-and-city-scapes (did anybody stop to wonder who was that crazy dude riding around in the open Jeep in the dead of frozen-fucking-winter?) all the while invoking comforting sentiments about “common ground” and “the middle.” 

The spot ended and I was still trying to figure out what I had just witnessed when I recognized the source of my agitation.

Oh yeah. 

Cognitive dissonance. 

There is more going on here than meets the eye or ear. 

For starters: “Jeep” is a revered  American brand.  We are not reminded of that until the very end of the spot, when a simple trio of graphic images informs us that this year is the 80th anniversary of the Jeep brand. 

The Jeep brand is only 9 years older than Bruce Springsteen

 

The “jeep” has a long and storied history.  

All those SUVs we see on the roads today can trace their origins back to the opening days of World  War II, when the Army gave a company called Willys Overland less than two months to produce a prototype of the first four-wheel drive vehicle ‘General Purpose’ vehicle, or the “G.P.”  G.P. – get it? G…P…. Jeep.  That light, utilitarian vehicle became a staple during the War and in every war movie since.  Hell, my parent’s first ‘car’ was a Jeep. 

Harvey and the Army surplus jeep he named after my Aunt Elinor, whose nickname was “Bumps.” Milton, NJ ca. 1948

Now, I’m gonna take a little space to confess to a bit of a mixed relationship with Bruce Springsteen. 

I like his music as much as any red-blooded American Boomer, though I’m not as obsessed with as his most rabid fans.  My sentiments toward “The Boss” are more personal and rooted in our common backgrounds 

He grew up in essentially the same part of New Jersey that I did.  His home town of Freehold was the seat of Monmouth, the county on the Jersey shore where I spent the 11 years off my childhood.  And when I hear about his days at the Stone Pony or see the title of his first album, ‘Greetings from Asbury Park,’  I conjure fond recollections of those carefree days when my grandparents took me to ice skate or ride the carousel at the Casino on the Asbury Park pier.

Nowadays, when people ask where I’m from I tell them “I’m from Springsteen Country – Monmouth County, New Jersey.” 

But wait, there’s more: When my family moved closer to New York, I found myself going to junior and senior high with a kid named Max Weinberg.  Max was a drummer.  His band – The Epsilons –  was the band my friends’ bands were always losing out to in competitions for school dance gigs.  It’s no surprise that  Max went on to become the drummer in Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band, and perhaps one of the 10 or 20 most famous drummers of the late 20th and early 21st century.   When he shows up on TeeVee I think “I know that guy…”, and he is the most sought-after figure at our high school reunions.  Everybody has a Max story. 

Max Weinberg, slayer of teenage band ambitions.

As for Springsteen’s music, I truly enjoy the highlights like “Born to Run” and “The Rising” – and ignore the low-lights (not that there are really all that many).  I’ve seen him in concert three times, but always found those big arena shows, while full of buoyant  energy, kind of  frustrating. Invariably the sound was distorted to the point that lyrics are unintelligible, though I observed that most of the people around me didn’t care because they know the lyrics by heart anyway.  I do not know all the lyrics by heart.  Not even “Born to Run.”

Nevertheless, I have all the requisite respect and admiration for Bruce Springsteen’s artistry, his integrity, his honesty, and the way he has turned his life into a vehicle of phenomenally successful commercial art. There is no denying that “Born in the USA” offered the perfect counterpoint to Reagan’s union-busting and tax-breaking in the 1980s. 

So at first blush, it seems entirely fitting that one American icon would endorse another in a wide-screen ode to National Unity. 

And it grieves me slightly to confront the nagging sense that something is awry here. 

It took The Google and Wikipedia to get beneath the surface of this seemingly benign two minutes of Sportsball Interruptus. 

Now I am beginning to understand the cognitive dissonance. 

And once again, “the medium is the message” (#TMITM). 

In the piece that I posted last week about the Insurrection and the Inauguration, I referred back to a seminal text to explain the difference between “content” and “conduit” – the “message” and “the medium.”  Then, quoting from Nicholas Carr’s 2010 book The Shallows, I tried to articulate the distinction: 

…whenever a new medium comes along, people naturally get caught up in…the “content.” The technology disappears behind whatever flows through it – facts, entertainment, instructions, conversation…

“Our focus on a medium’s content can blind us to [its] deep effects.  We’re too busy being dazzled or disturbed by the programming to notice what’s going on inside our heads

That why I think The Boss was duped: dazzled by his ability to create brilliant content, Bruce may have lost sight of the larger context. The content, in other words, got lost in the medium, which in turn conveys the underlying message. 

Poking around the web last night after the game, I found this New York Times account of the spot’s origins and development: 

When [marketing exec Olivier] François received the script for an early version of the Super Bowl ad, he sent it to [Springsteen’s manager Jon] Landau. Within 24 hours, he had a virtual handshake deal with Mr. Springsteen… Mr. Landau said the Boss had created the ad with his own creative team. “Bruce made the film exactly as he wanted to, with no interference at all from Jeep,” he said.

Fair – and effective – enough.  

Still, despite the uplifting sentiments expressed in high-def and surround sound in my living room, something about this spot left me scratching my head. 

For starters – and as I learned from the Times – who even knows that the iconic American “Jeep” brand is now owned by a multinational conglomerate based in the Netherlands called Stellantis?   

Does it not seem at all ironic that this poetic call for American Unity comes from a company based in Amsterdam???  A company that we have never even heard of?  

Stellantis? What the hell does that even mean?

 

That’s why, despite all of his admirable good intentions, I don’t think even Bruce realizes the underlying dynamic in this seemingly benign endorsement. 

What Bruce missed is that a message like this does not get through mainstream media – it certainly doesn’t merit the many millions it takes to air a two-minute spot on the Super Bowl – unless it serves the imperatives of the companies that are paying for it. 

The content of the spot may be national reunification, but the medium – and thus the subliminal message – is monolithic multinational corporate capitalism.  The very forces that eviscerated the working and middle classes that Bruce Springsteen has championed for nearly fifty years are now using his voice to appeal for “unity” – not only to sell more Jeeps, but to quietly mollify us. 

Because buried in that message is our acceptance of their corporate dominance of our political economy.

While you are comforted in a warm, emotional appeal, please ignore the fact that companies like Stellantis are contributing millions of dark dollars to cap the minimum wage, secure tax cuts for the rich, turn a blind eye to the environment, deny health care to millions, and ultimately perpetuate the same forces of oligarchy, discrimination, racism, patriarchy,  etc etc. that Bruce Springsteen and Co. have crusaded against or nearly five decades. 

With our eyes and ears we see and hear “The Boss” soothingly intoning his call for ‘reunification’ – but what’s going on inside our heads is the subliminal message that invisible, heretofore nameless multinational corporations are looking out for us and trying to bring us together.  

Don’t buy it. 

The people that own “Jeep” are not your friends. They are not your neighbors, and they don’t care if you get another $1,400 in pandemic relief – or that somebody in your family has died from the pestilence.  

They just want you to think warmly about their brand, and accept them as our benevolent corporate overlords.

I don’t mean to discourage viewers from enjoying the spot; if you found it touching or moving or otherwise meaningful, good for you.  I was moved by it, too. But also unnerved.

I might be overstating the case to suggest that by serving his own purpose while serving the sponsor’s that Bruce was “duped.”  I’d like to think he took all the angles into account in his calculations.  He seems smart that way.

Still, they cleverly waited until deep in the 4th quarter, when the outcome of the game was already certain, when we were all beer-buzzed in a cheese-and-crackers coma to present their message – subliminal or otherwise.

And they got Bruce Springsteen to go along with it.

 

No, really… who drives an uncovered Jeep around Kansas in the dead of winter?

 

Deep Thoughts: Brain Damage and
The High Water Mark of the ConLunacy 

It’s been a few weeks now since a mob of fugitives from reality staged their clown-show coup attempt on the Capitol. 

In the weeks since, millions, probably billions, possibly trillions of words have flashed across digital screens to assess the damage.

Here now are my two-cents worth of pith in that vast ocean of virtual verbiage. 

Cent The First: In which I offer some high-altitude observations about technology and the way our brains process information in an attempt to make the case that America doesn’t have a political problem – it has a mental health problem. The ‘net effect’ (pun intended) of all this new technology is a raging, widespread – dare I say, pandemic? – case of undiagnosed #BrainDamage. 

Cent The Second: I keep coming back to an historical analogy that struck a few days after the siege at the Capitol.  I’ll get to that near the end. Bear with me, this is a long one…

1.  #TMITM 

Peer with me now into the verbal kaleidoscope through which I have viewed all things since roughly 1968, when I first encountered the work of a certain Marshall McLuhan, who wrote in 1964 that “the medium is the message” (#TMITM).  

Marshall McLuhan
(1911-1980

That expression gets tossed around a lot, but it’s not clear that any of the pundits who do the tossing really know what it means, so herewith a simple explanation from the pen of the master himself: 

“Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication.”  

–– Marshall McLuhan,
The Medium is the Massage, 1967

Writing at the peak of the broadcast era in the mid 1960s, McLuhan described the impact of electric communications on a world that until that point had evolved around print media: 

After three thousand years of explosion, by means of fragmentary and mechanical technologies, the Western World is imploding… Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace…

…which extension, McLuhan coined further, led our arrival at the outskirts of a ‘Global Village.’   

Fast forward to the 21st Century. What would Marshall McLuhan make of the Internet?  We cannot know, because McLuhan died in 1980 – about the time I first went online with a 300baud modem, dialing up a service called ‘The Source‘ (and later Compuserve).  That was 13 years before I first learned of the actual Internet:  In the late fall of 1993, I discovered Listserves and User Groups.  The first Netscape web browser arrived about a year later.

Absent McLuhan’s mystic oracle, it falls to a new generation of witnesses to adapt his theories to these new media, networks, and devices. 

In the introduction to his 2010 (think MySpace…) book – The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains  (hell, just the title oughta be some kind of clue) – author Nicholas  Carr picks up the torch that McLuhan set down when he moved on to that great media lab in the sky. Carr combs through the dense, often opaque verbiage of McLuhan’s seminal works from a half-century earlier to distill the pertinent elements for the digital era: 

“McLuhan understood that whenever a new medium comes along, people naturally get caught up in…the “content.” The technology disappears behind whatever flows through it – facts, entertainment, instructions, conversation…     

“Our focus on a medium’s content can blind us to [its] deep effects.  We’re too busy being dazzled or disturbed  by the programming to notice what’s going on inside our heads

“The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts,” McLuhan wrote. Rather, they alter “patterns of perception steadily and without resistance…” 

(italicized emphases added)

In other words, 

“Media work their magic – or their mischief – on the nervous system itself…”

To underscore that point, consider this (only slightly) over-simplified illustration of how a brain  on paper pages differs from a brain on digital ‘pages’: 

As you read these words on a screen, does it occur to you that the characters, sentences and paragraphs you see are not really ‘there’?  

When you read a book or a newspaper, you are reading solid characters inked onto a fixed surface.  The letters are permanently imprinted.  They are ‘there.’ 

Persistence of vision? Let General Motors explain it all for you (ca. 1936) (click image)

Now consider for a moment how a movie works.  What the brain interprets as ‘moving pictures’ is based on a phenomenon called “persistence of vision” – each frame of the projection remains impressed upon the retina when the next frame appears a fraction of a second later, creating the illusion of motion in the brain. 

Persistence of vision is at work when you read text from a screen. Printed words and images exist outside the brain; digital words and images exist only inside the brain. On a computer, smartphone or tablet display, the characters you read are painted in pixel fragments before your eyes; the characters don’t really exist until your brain assembles the pixels into what you think you see.  Compared to reading printed text, the brain is working very differently, lulled into the illusion that it is reading ‘text.’1 The brain circuity is effectively re-wired to recreate the experience of reading printed text.  Therein lie the origins of America’s mental health crisis.

Returning to The Shallows, Nicholas Carr concludes, 

[We miss] what McLuhan saw:  that in the long run a medium’s content matters less than the medium itself in influencing how we think and act.”

Staring at our gizmos, as predicted in 1906 (click to embiggen)

By now, how we act is fairly obvious: we’re staring at shiny glass objects in our hands all day, massaging them with our thumbs in an infinite quest for both tactile and psychic gratification.  We can’t so much as stop at a red light without at least feeling the impulse to reach for your gizmo.  Got any new email? New likes? What’s that sound?  Oh, the guy behind is me honking cuz the light’s turned green… 

All of that is in the realms of what we think. How we think is less obvious – until an event like January 6th seizes our collective attention with a mind-altering what. the. fuck?

It should be equally obvious by now that ‘what the fuck?’ is really pretty simple.

It’s the Internet, stupid. 

All this new technology has ripped a galactic tear in the fabric of our information universe and torn loose the underpinnings of the political and economic foundations of society.  We witnessed the culmination of all that disruption in the halls of Congress on January 6th . 

Where McLuhan was writing in 1964 of a cultural ‘implosion’, we must now assert a new, opposite conclusion: Over the past fifteen or twenty years, that implosion  has reached a critical mass and has reversed course, exploding in a universe-altering Big Bang of cognitive dispersion and dissolution.

Think of that clown-car horde swarming the Capitol. Then return to McLuhan describing television in 1964, like a barbarian order: 

“The electric technology is within the gates, and we are numb, deaf, and blind about its encounter with the Gutenberg technology, on which and through which the American way of life was formed.”  

Translation: Our Constitution was drafted as a compromise between large states and small, slave-holding and free. But that was just the ‘content’ of the time; the dominant medium of the era was print.  The Constitution was cobbled together in much the same way that a printed page was assembled in the 18th century –  at a time when the fastest information could travel was the speed of a galloping horse (“the Redcoats are coming!“). It’s a genuine marvel that it has lasted this long, more than a hundred years after information started to travel at the speed of light. 

Imagine Marshall McLuhan writing fifty years later, in  2014 – two years before Twitter and 24- hours cable news produced Donald Trump.

21st Century Barbarians, armed with cell phone cameras

Barbarians at the gates, indeed.  They are everywhere.  There is no longer a single point of origin, like a newspaper printer or a radio or television station.  Now the points of origin have reached parity with the points or reception.  Everybody who has a laptop, a tablet, or a smart phone is a printer and a broadcaster.

What humanity is undergoing now is nothing less than a complete reversal of the cultural trajectory of the past five hundred years, mandated by the fragmentation bomb of digital technologies. 

There are no gatekeepers. 

Hell, there aren’t even any gates. 

No wonder it was so easy for a mob of digital Visigoths to storm the ramparts of Congress.

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2. #BrainDamage  

the blue -> red political spectrum as a mental health assessment; on the left, a healthy, normal (blue) brain, on the right a diseased (red) brain

From the first ape with a thigh bone to the first nerd with a slide rule, cultural evolution has followed technological disruption.

If you can entertain the premise that the advent print in the 15th Century produced the Reformation (Bibles for everyone!) and The Enlightenment (Principia for everyone! Shakespeare for everyone else!), then you may begin to appreciate how the advent of digital communications has produced the chaos that we seem to be living through now.

Starting in the mid 1990s, when personal computers became common household appliances and we all got charmed by the chime of “You’ve Got Mail!”, to the early ‘aughts when broadband delivered the Celestial Jukebox into our pockets and purses, with all the collected knowledge of human history at our disposal with a couple of finger taps, that was enough to alter the way even the soundest of brains work.  Most brains are not so sound.

Per McLuhan: The way information is organized, disseminated and gathered affects the way it is processed in our brains – and therein lies the root of our current dilemma:  the Internet has rewired our brains, and a not-small percentage of humanity has gone from their brains being ‘rewired’ to actual #BrainDamage.   What else can you call the widespread inability to distinguish between that which is real and true and that which is fabricated and conspiratorial?

In the third decade of the 21st Century, America is not suffering from a political divide; it is suffering from a mental health crisis.  What is perceived as a political divide  is not between left -v- right, it’s between the #BrainDamaged and the nominally functional who can still wrestle effectively with the vestiges of the Enlightenment: science, reason, and some grasp of objective facts. 

In a recent episode of his podcast Another Way, the legal scholar Lawrence Lessig makes this straightforward observation: 

 “You can’t have a democratic republic if there is no foundation of shared truth.”  

What the internet (and its older cousin, 24-hour cable news) has done is compromise the underpinnings of that foundation.  The atomization of information has given every smartphone, tablet, and laptop user the ability to define their own reality – and more importantly, find at least some small cohort that will echo that vision.  

I’m not a psychiatrist – I’m just playing on one the Internet – but it seems to me that the inability to process or live within the constraints of an objective reality would warrant a clinical  diagnosis: schizophrenia2. I dunno, maybe there is a better DSM category for ‘unable to process reality.’  But how else would you describe a condition where otherwise seemingly functional people are suffering hallucinations of a free, fair, and certified election being ‘stolen’? 

The mass delusion started settling in on January 20, 2017, when newly inaugurated President of the United States Donald J. Trump invoked the catchwords that will be carved onto the tombstone of his four years in that office: “American Carnage.”

But the real destruction – to the “foundations of shared truth” – did not begin until the following Sunday, when Kellyanne Conway went on Meet the Press and inaugurated the Era of Alternative Facts – at which point the Lawrence Lessigs of the world became headless statues, relics from a vaguely recalled, ancient past. 

The content here is ‘alternative facts’; the message is, ‘you can’t have alternative facts without a media environment comprised of infinite sources and echo-chambers.’  

Four years later, in his 2021 Inaugural address, Joe Biden spoke of “this uncivil war” – an oblique allusion to the rhetorical excesses of the previous four years.  With that prompt, and for the sake of argument, let’s see how even a ‘shared foundation of truth’ can lead to a real Civil War: 

America’s Civil War was the unfathomable penance the country was forced to pay for the absolution of its Original Sin.  There was a deep and long-standing disagreement over the moral propriety of the ‘peculiar institution’  of slavery:  Advocates from the South, like Kentucky Senator Henry Clay or Confederate Vice President Alexander Stevens could argue that the enslavement of humans from another continent was morally justifiable; abolitionists in the North considered the whole idea morally repugnant, degenerate and evil.  But nobody denied that slavery in America existed. Nobody from the South had the temerity to say that slavery did not exist on the cotton and tobacco plantations.  However objectionable, there was a ‘foundation of shared truth’ in the obvious, odious fact.   The opinions around that fact were sufficiently entrenched on either side of the Mason Dixon line that the bloodiest war in American history was all it took to finally decide the issue. 

That’s an example of struggling for the moral center of the Republic over a generally accepted fact –  and going to war over the attendant difference of opinion.

NY Senator Daniel Moynihan, furtively arguing against “alternative facts.”

The trouble is, facts are not so agreeable in the 21st Century as they were in the 19th.  The late Senator from New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “everybody is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.” I haven’t spoken to Senator Moynihan – he’s been dead for almost 20 years – so I think it’s safe to say that he is glad he did not live long enough to encounter the psychic carnage of ‘alternative facts’ and the mental instabilities of QAnon.

In November 2020, there was an election.  The votes were counted.  More than 60 court cases in countless different jurisdictions determined that the results of the count were free and fair, and allegations of widespread voter fraud and a ‘stolen’ outcome were universally dismissed.  

But not so fast if you live in your own Internet-generated reality.  Despite all the evidence, the forces of opposition cannot even agree that the conclusion is a certifiable, reliable, acceptable fact.  Allegations of impropriety persisted despite their demonstrable falsehood. I contend that what we are witnessing is the message in the medium – in the form of digitally-induced brain damage.

I also think we have seen the worst of it.  The fever dream is breaking.

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3. #TheHighWaterMark

The monument on Cemetery Ridge marking ‘The High Water Mark of the Confederacy’

 

Finally, I have arrived at the history lesson that was the genesis of this entire screed. Sometime shortly after the Spectacle in the Capitol,  the expression “high water mark” began bubbling in my brain.

This is something I learned during the Civil War Sesquicentennial through my work with The 1861 Project. 

Pickett’s Charge was the final Confederate offensive at the Battle of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863.  Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was already on its heels after falling short over the previous two days, but Lee decided to launch one more daring assault.

Lee ordered General George Pickett to advance his division across a mile of open field toward a Federal entrenchment on a rise appropriately enough called Cemetery Ridge.  Despite monumental losses at the hands of Federal forces firing down on the advancing Confederates,  the surviving element of Pickett’s division managed to reach the top of the ridge and briefly penetrate the Federal defenses. 

Had that penetration held, had the Confederate forces prevailed on that day, then Lee and what was left of his Army might have been able to achieve their ultimate objective – advancing another 80 miles south to take the Capital at Washington, DC and end the War with a Union surrender. 

But the Federal forces rallied, closed the breach in their line, and forced the Confederate Army back down the ridge. 

That was the closest the Confederacy ever got to winning the Civil War. There is a monument that marks the spot where the Pickett’s Charge broke through as “The High Water of the Confederacy.” 

Despite the Union victory at Gettysburg, the Civil War ground on for another brutal year and a half before Lee finally surrendered to Grant at Appomattox in April, 1865. 

Stephen Lang as Gen. G. Pickett in “Gettysburg.” Lee: “General Pickett, you must look to your division!” Pickett: “General Lee, I have NO DIVISION!”

That image of Pickett’s Charge (which I am probably seeing in my mind’s eye from the 1993 movie ‘Gettysburg‘), is what comes to mind when I watch footage of the Capitol siege. 

The element that stormed the Capitol that day were the victims of a con, susceptible by virtue of the #BrainDamage they have suffered from the disorienting effects of digital technologies. 

And while there are still voices of derangement in Congress and elsewhere, those elements are now, finally, being pushed back to the fringe where the lunatics belong. 

And I predict that someday in the not-too-distant-future we will look back on January 6, 2021 as “The HighwaterMark of The ConLunacy.”

The Federal Forces of Reason reassembled around an agreed upon foundation – beginning later that same day when Mitt Romney stood in the well of the United States Senate and declared of the fringe element:  we have to tell them the truth.” 

At that moment, a long-absent concept was re-introduced into the political discourse: Lawrence Lessig’s ‘shared foundation of truth.’

Like a newborn infant, that concept struggles to survive.  The forces of obsequious, sycophantic partisanship have not yet been driven entirely back into the intellectual swamp from whence they came.  

Remember: although it took a year and half before Lee finally surrendered, the die was cast that bloody day in the summer of 1863.  In much the same way that the forces of Union, democracy, and emancipation were not ultimately victorious until the spring 1865, the forces of reason and competence, science and data have been restored to the Federal government in 2021 – and will ultimately prevail in some near-if-unforeseeable future.  

Some things are facts. Some things are fabrications.  And even with the Internet (and all the gizmos that deliver it) undermining our print-engendered, Enlightenment-fostered processes of thought and reason, there is too much common sense in the world for an ideology based on fabrications to persist much longer.  The tide has turned, the ConLunatics have been forced off the ridge, and ultimately, the Union of Common Sense and The Foundation of Shared Truth will reconstruct the Republic of Shared Truth. 

Forget the elephant; this is the new symbol of the Republican party.

We are seeing the nascent signs of the return of reason, even as the media continue to focus on the bright, shiny insanity of people like Marjorie Taylor-Greene.  The Kevin McCarthys and Lindsey Grahams of the world  cannot help themselves.  They live in the partisan confines of their own derangement.  They cannot tell that their brains are broken, because they live inside them, like a fish does not know it swims in water.  But there are a few – like Romney, like Adam Kinzinger or Liz Cheney, whose brains are not broken, who have managed to wade through the digital muck and arrive at a semblance of objective facts reality, and truth.

I am, for example, encouraged by one prominent conservative columnist who dares to wonder aloud , “Just How Nuts Is The Republican Party?”  It’s about time somebody inside the tent started asking who’s pissing into it. 

And there are indications that even the most deranged among us are capable of seeing the light, can repair their own #braindamage, and begin to put this Internet-induced mental-health crisis behind us.

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4. #FutureSoBright

What were you doing when YOU were 22 years old??

There is still a lot of work to do.  My God, there is a lot of work to do.  

How much longer can we continue to be governed by (ageism alert!) septuagenarians (I get to say that because I are one) and octogenarians whose brains are more cognitively attuned to the workings of a rotary dial than a smartphone?  

How much longer can the fate of the republic rest in the hands of one individual who presides over a legislative body where ten sparsely populated states have the same representation as one state with forty million people? 

How much longer can we live in a republic where the chief executive can be elected with something other than a majority of the electorate? 

And for God’s sake we have got to eradicate the notion that ‘corporations are people‘ and ‘money is speech’.

Something’s gotta give, so that we can return to the kind of governance where, when things are running well, we don’t have to think about it every waking minute of every day. 

We should not have to worry about our national political structure; we should just go about our daily lives. 

My favorite image from the inauguration: the first couples, holding hands like they mean it. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

But when the entire nation is in the grip of a pandemic, then that political structure has got to unify around in a common objective without the interference of a delusional fringe caught in the grip of a mass hallucination. 

Further, we Boomer types have got to pave the way for the next generations.  

Beside the words “All men are created equal” and “We the People,” we must enshrine the words of Amanda Gorman: “We are striving to forge our union with purpose. To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters, and conditions of man.”  I’m sure that is a very different state of affairs than the republic of propertied white men that the Founders envisioned, but it is also the natural result of the trajectory they set in motion. 

I am also encouraged by this recent commentary that surmises a peak in the swing of America’s pendulum, reaching the top of a forty-year cycle that started with the ascendance of Reagan conservatism (and the long since-discredited ‘voodoo economics’) in 1980. The pendulum is beginning to swing back, into a 21st Century embodiment of the sort of collective purpose that the country experienced beginning with the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. 

After four very dark and strange years, we have finally emerged into the proverbial light  at the end of the tunnel.  The light is dim now, there are still shadows from the darkness, but the worst of the darkness is behind us, and the arc of history bends again toward justice.

It may be summer or fall before the light shines brightly, but once the pandemic is behind us, 2022 could be the start of another Roaring 20s. Only this time without the Prohibition.  Too bad I don’t drink. 

In addition to this viral pandemic, maybe by then we’ll have found a way of treating our national  mental illness pandemic as well, and we can begin to welcome the digitally deranged back from the fringe. The deliverance of a prosperous and healthy nation will make it that much harder for a fringe element to gain the sort or traction this period of chaos has provided. 

It’s really not like a grizzled curmudgeon like me to express that degree of optimism.

But… there it is. 

Where are my shades? 

 

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This clip depicts the climactic moments of Picketts Charge from the 1993 film Gettysburg – the only Civil War movie ever filmed at the actual location.  Click here for a playlist of the entire sequence of scenes from the film.

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Footnotes:

1:  I’ve gotten push-back on this line of thinking in the past.  Here’s my push-back push-back:When you put a newspaper down, set it aside, are the letters and words still on the page?  When you close your laptop, or put your tablet aside, are the characters still  on the screen?  No?  I rest my case. 

2: There may be a more accurate term for the condition exhibited by the Delusional Branch of the Republican Party.  Maybe it’s just dementia.  Like said, I’m not a psychiatrist, I just play one on the Internet.  Your mileage may vary.