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October 31, 2009

Best television series ever: In Treatment

How about that for reductionism? Not even a list. Just one. Slam the gavel. Case closed.

I used to say The Prisoner. Good old philosophical escapism, which culminated in the powerful idea that we’re never free but we can be more comfortable. It even wears well forty years after it was made on a budget by British TV. An intelligent and insightful allegory that raised television to a new level. And fun.

In Treatment is a simple idea, psychotherapy sessions. Set like a stage-play, no chase scenes, no shooting, two characters talking. Spelled b.o.r.i.n.g.? Just the opposite. We don’t really want to go farther like we think we do; we want to go deeper. That’s what happens. All crying and yelling? Not really, lots of self-examination. We’re all on the couch, you know, sitting still for the journey inward. Watching therapy as therapy. I feel drained afterwards.

The premise is great; the acting is superb; the writing is phenomenal. In every conversation, even outside the therapy sessions, like between the shrink and his ex-wife, both characters are right. Not one right, one wrong, get it? When have we ever heard writing so extraordinary that opposing characters are both telling the truth? Or talking about something and really talking about something else? And when have we ever seen such thoroughly believable unaware acting? Isn’t listening the most important element in acting anyway? In Treatment is listening made drama. And the power of silence, unexploited in television. This is beyond an actor’s studio display; it’s the hyper-reality missing from reality shows. That’s also due to fine direction, of course.

I read that the original is an Israeli series (Be’Tipul) by a guy named Hagai Levi, whose scripts were often used word for word in the U.S. version. Nice job.

So if we have to discuss the vast wasteland, the mind-number, the opiate of the masses one more time, let me express my recommendation. Good watching, better living.

Happy trials, Martin

Mutt: Did you hear the one about the tap dancer who fell into the sink?
Jeff: No, but I can tell you: I'd rather have a full bottle in front of me than a full frontal lobotomy.
Mutt: You know, I went to buy some camouflage trousers the other day but I couldn't find any.
Jeff: That's nothing, I used to think I was an atheist until I discovered that I was God.
Mutt: I wonder, are we funny?
Jeff: Funny looking.
Mutt: Funny smelling.

October 24, 2009

Wars of Words and Worlds

I’ve been getting a lot of flak (military term) lately about a war song on my myspace page Marching Through Georgia by Henry Clay Work, celebrating Sherman’s destructive March To The Sea during the Civil War. Defined by Wikipedia as the first example of Total War (I doubt that) where an army destroys enemy soldiers, civilians, homes, crops, and burns everything down to the dirt, Sherman’s March might be a turning point, an up-grade. We now talk about “wiping that place off the face of the earth,” “blowing them to kingdom come,” “scorched-earth policy.” It didn’t start with Sherman (a long-time banker in San Francisco), maybe Attila the Hun or some other famous brute, but the genocide against the Native Americans, the fire-bombing of Dresden, the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and our other atrocities indicate that it’s a characteristic American sentiment. “Let’s blow the bastards to hell” seems like a national slogan (second only to “We’re Number One!”). I hear women reporters using the expression “take out,” a dangerous euphemism for killing, as in “let’s just take out Bin Laden.” Women! Reporters! Americans!

In the early sixties the U.S. was just getting into the Vietnam quicksand, and TV shows were produced like COMBAT! to glorify war, something Hollywood has never shied away from. (see also Twelve O'Clock High, The Rat Patrol, Garrison's Gorillas, The Lieutenant, Convoy, Mr. Roberts, Hogan’s Heroes, and Gomer Pyle) So we kids, tired of cowboys and Indians, started playing WWII soldiers killing Krauts and Japs. My friend John’s father still had his Army gear so we could put on real helmets when we shot water pistols and tossed plastic grenades. Then we got tired of that and started playing spies like The Man from Uncle and Get Smart (right, get smart kid).

It was confusing around 1966 when the news from Vietnam started showing soldiers on stretchers, many with sheets over their faces. What were our heroes dying for? Something called the Domino Theory? Something called The Draft was taking away the big kids and not sending them back. Hey, stop that.

My father was a draft counselor, and I told him I thought that killing was wrong (where did I get that crazy idea?), so from the age of 15 he helped me prepare for my draft board hearings that would probably land me in prison for a couple years. By then (early 70’s) I was involved in the anti-war protest movement so fiercely that I would have done time. Now I see that Canada was a smarter option. As I got closer to becoming eligible for the draft the war was winding down and a lottery system was established, choosing unlucky draftees born in 1954, but then not calling anyone born in 1955 (so my destiny changed by being born 3 weeks late).

By 1973 there was less fighting, less news from Indochina, fewer protests, and I was relieved and reprieved and well into higher education. Then in the spring of 1975 I remember a retreat in the Sierras in which we all went outside, about a hundred people, and we stood in the patchy snow in a large circle and held hands--we didn’t know why yet--and the leader said: "Today we can finally say, The Vietnam War is over!” The Vietnam War? It sunk in. We hugged and kissed and wept for a mixture of joy and sadness and nostalgia for our lost youth. War over, begin normal life.

Can I describe the feeling of growing up during a war, an abstract war far away, a TV war, that becomes more real as your turn to participate comes closer? No. Maybe I don’t need to because the U.S. is fighting two wars right now (Nobel prize notwithstanding). Because there are 44 wars going on in the world right now. Because it seems like there’s no end in sight, no relief, that children will never again have a childhood without the Specter.

Of course we can tolerate almost anything. We can laugh and sing and be merry (although I wish our political leaders would keep a straight face until it’s over). The children can play (yeah, video war games). Because the war’s not right here at home this year but overseas somewheres. Americans are lucky to have two coasts so everything ‘overseas’ is unreal, on another planet. And not worth a headline. Critical war reporting from Iraq? Uh, don’t remember very much. Reporters in Afghanistan like Morley Safer in Vietnam? Uh, nope, too dangerous. We have a very vague idea of what’s going on there. We don’t even see the coffins coming back. Do we want to?

We turn away, but everyone is affected by a world constantly at war. War means lives destroyed. How to measure the pain? 4,351 U.S. soldiers killed in action in Iraq (31,536 wounded), or should we include all the Coalition forces (4,669) or include the Iraqi Security Forces post-Saddam (11,525), or do we want to go with the total deaths on all sides including civilians, which just for Iraq is reported in May 2009 to be 1,339,711? And, remind me again, over a million people died for what?

Add that to the total number of deaths since 2001 in Afghanistan (55,931) and you get 1,395,642. Hmmm, that number sounds familiar. Total dead in Vietnam: 1,396,357. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a match. And it's not nearly over. So don't let them tell you that this is not another Vietnam.

Lastly, from the Wikipedia page on Orwell's 1984:
“In the end, Goldstein implies that "the war" might not exist; the Oceanian populace know the external world solely via the Party's propaganda, and that the rocket bombings, ostensibly by "the enemy", might be self-inflicted (as Julia suggests), therefore, "the war" is a lie. Moreover, it might possibly be that Eurasia and Eastasia are fabrications, and that Oceania is the sole world power. In such ambiguity is the meaning of perpetual war: internal subjugation disguised as defence against foreign subjugation, the theory and practice of oligarchical collectivism.”

Happy trials, Martin

Mutt: Can you believe this guy?
Jeff: Well, he has to get it off his chest.
Mutt: Un-American, I say.
Jeff: Good question, is he still American? He's lived abroad so long I bet he's gone over to the enemy.
Mutt: Gone native, I knew it. The traitor.
Jeff: Guilty of thoughtcrime. Should have the Ministry of Truth look into it.
Mutt: You mean the Ministry of Love.
Jeff: Good thing BB is watching our every move to eliminate subversives from our midst.
Mutt: Like those who desecrate a great patriotic song like Marching Through Georgia.
Jeff: Yep. I wouldn't mind marching through Georgia's bedroom though.
Mutt: Rape and pillage? Oh, is it football season already?
Jeff: We're number one! We're number one!

October 14, 2009

Carlos Santana with Kruk and Kuip

On August 25th, Latino Heritage Night, Carlos Santana was honored by the San Francisco Giants, and he spent the fourth inning in the broadcast booth with Duane Kuiper and Mike Krukow.

DK: Looking for some runs tonight.
CS: You gotta believe ... and get out of the way ... get out of your own way. Don’t think too much.
DK: He talks like a hitting coach.
MK: Talks like a pitching coach.
DK: So you come up here, you see this view, what do you think?
CS: I think that this is the best place to be in the whole planet.
MK: It is pretty magical.
CS: Yes, we just did a tour in South America, and we did a tour in Europe, and in Istanbul, some incredible cities, and the first I think it was Alexandria or Constantinople. We did Greece, Athens, where the cradle of consciousness and civilization started with Socrates and everybody. Yet there’s nothing comes close to the Wonder, man. I mean, San Francisco is the heart and center of the United States. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. Maybe Maui, that’s about it.
DK: Well, we always feel like this place is magical, and it’s just got a good vibe to it.
MK: And we see you here a lot, you come to games, and, you know, the buzz of the crowd always lets us know you’re here.
DK: How do you stay in shape? Do you have a major secret that you can tell us?
CS: I just play tennis, I play tennis a lot. I’m very grateful to my Mom and my Dad; they gave me some good genes.
DK: Carry your guitar around?
CS: Carry a guitar around. Try a little Stevie Ray, and Jimi too, and Eric too, and B.B. too.
Cause we all learned from B.B. He’s like the ... to me B.B. King is like the Frank Sinatra, he’s the Chairman of the Board. We’re very grateful he’s still here. And we’re sorry we lost Mr. Les Paul, the genius, many people are, because he created that idiom of the log, the electric guitar, but we honor him. We honor him with all our hearts. And thank him because some people set the tone for the rest of the other musicians. Just like Willie Mays or Robinson.
MK: Do you play guitar every day?
CS: You know, I take my guitar for a walk every chance I can. I never practice, but I take my guitar for a walk. I take my fingers for a walk.
MK: Just to stay in shape. Tell us about the Milagros Foundation.
CS: Well, Milagros Foundation is something that it came because when I came to San Francisco I learned from B.B. King and Tito Fuentes, Bill Graham and many people, but I also learned from Caesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta and Madre Teresa. To me it was a balance, with the Black Panthers. And I learned that the best thing we can invest, besides a beautiful park like this, is in people. So that people don’t kill each other like they do in Richmond or Oakland or Jerusalem or Jakarta. You know, if we invest in people so people can have a higher education, people can learn to value and have more compassion. Because once you value, you have compassion, you become mercy, kindly and mercy for your fellow man. With Milagros it’s all about investing, giving back, educating youngsters so that they can have a sense of self-worth. That’s where it begins. If you want to turn around this element of fear that George Bush created for eight years. There’s just love and fear in this planet. Fear is so costly, so expensive, love is for free.
DK: We’ll give you a chance to finish your thought on this, because it’s important to you.
CS: Yes it’s really important to me. We as humans can heal one another. I really believe what Martin Luther King said, “Learn, baby, learn, instead of burn, baby, burn.”
DK: Well, those are all good thoughts.
CS: I grew up across the street working at Tick-Tock’s. I came here in ’62 and in ’64-‘67 I worked right across the street from here. So to cross the street and to be here now, and watch all this, I’m just very grateful. I do believe in a Spring Creator, and I believe the best is still ahead for us people of San Francisco. There’s more artists than con artists in the Bay Area. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.
MK: Carlos, thank you so much, man, you’ve inspired us for many years.
CS: Thank you so much. Stay in your heart. Go Giants.
DK: Carlos Santana visiting us and we’re so happy he did because I’m feeling better now already. I haven’t even kept score; I have no idea what just happened.
MK: That's a great line: more artists than con artists.

Happy trials, Martin

Mutt: Know why nobody ever starves in the desert?
Jeff: Because of the sand which is there.
Mutt: Ha, ha, good one, huh?
Jeff: Considering the Darfur tragedy, Somalia, the Sudan, Chad and so on.
Mutt: Geez, it was just a joke, man. All you see is pain. Lighten up.
Jeff: Yeah, well, there’s a lot of suffering in this world. Did you hear about the George W. Bush Library?
Mutt: No, what?
Jeff: Burned to the ground.
Mutt: Oh my God, that’s terrible!
Jeff: Yeah, he lost both books.
Mutt: Mmmm.
Jeff: Hadn’t even finished coloring one of them.
Mutt: Yuck, yuck, now you’re talking.

October 8, 2009

last on mud, flood and blood

People often say, “he’s got those deaths on his conscience,” but rarely, “I’ve got those deaths on my conscience.” All the people who could have done something differently in the past to avoid the avoidable part of the recent disaster (see 2009 Messina floods and mudslides on Wikipedia) have all publicly denied any responsibility. But what do they think in private? When they’re alone with their consciences, do they say: those people died because I didn’t do my job, or I diverted the funds to other projects that might get me more votes, or I drew up a regional building plan to favor my rich friends? I doubt that the human soul can take such honesty. We rationalize the truth away. And then feel guilty about slavery and the Spanish Inquisition.

My wife, a city employee, has been interviewing the survivors. She met a young couple who were to be married next week. They had all the preparations made and their house was full of wedding gifts still in their boxes. All gone: the house they saved up years to buy, the gifts, their wedding plans. They told her, “we won’t get married now.” “You mean it’s postponed.” “No, we won’t ever get married. We have nothing left but our lives.”

The United States of America is a country based on the idea of ‘starting over’. Sometimes it seems like that’s all people do, job to job, spouse to spouse, church to church. How many do you know who’ve spent their whole lives in one house? I lived in 24 houses in 24 years. In these Sicilian villages the houses go back to the 1300’s, often in the same family. Now you can see people crying, “My grandfather was born in that house and his before him. I lived there my whole life.” “What house? There is no house.” “What life? There is no life.”

There’s also a disturbing element of racism in the reactions to this disaster. Initially, the cause according to most journalists and politicians was the illegal building, as if the owners had raised cardboard houses and the big bad wolf had blown them down, as if the residents themselves were at fault. ‘Serves ‘em right.’

Totally false and evil, but the denials didn’t make the evening news. Then there was no day of mourning, no state funerals for the victims, no moment of silence at the soccer matches. Then those slights were corrected, but that didn’t make the news either. It seems to us like North Italians, in general, couldn’t care less (most donations are coming in from Messina itself, the poor helping the poor), and the pundits blame the victims.

Sicily, in case you don’t have a map in your head, is about two miles from the Italian continent at the Straits of Messina where I live. That’s a long distance sometimes. They talk of building a bridge, but they’d rather cut the mooring line, hoping Sicily will just float away. Except for vacations. We’re in the Deep South, nearer Africa than Europe, remember Hurricane Katrina? Didn't it seem like if New Orleans had been in Haiti many people would have been relieved? "Hey, not my problem."

An explosion and a river of mud and boulders 15 feet high charging downhill through the little streets. Try to imagine being on the ground floor with mud smashing in through windows and doors like they were paper, filling the room to the ceiling in a second. Even in the pitch dark, even in the bizarre confusion of the event, you’d have time to think ‘this is it.’ On the first floors people were swept off the balconies, but those who stayed inside had mud and water up to their waists. So they had the same ‘this is it’ feeling, but it wasn’t it for them, this time. And on the second floor after the rain bomb went off, then listening to the screams of the injured and dying into the night gradually fade, unable to help one’s neighbors because going out meant death. One guy, an official in the Navy, Simone Neri, did go outside, pulled eight people out of the mud and then was swept away himself. We/I would have done what he did, right? Right? And I wouldn’t be here writing about it.

Happy trials, Martin

Mutt: So baseball season’s ended.
Jeff: It’s about time.
Mutt: Hey, don’t knock the poet’s sport.
Jeff: Baseball’s like guests.
Mutt: How so?
Jeff: You’re glad when they come, glad when they leave.
Mutt: Yeah, the spikes were tearing up my fancy floor.
Jeff: And all that spitting in the bedroom.
Mutt: But you know they’ll be back, like a migrating herd.
Jeff: And we’ll be waiting with food and drink. Seeya next year, boys.

October 5, 2009


: Monday, Oct. 5, 9 am.

This morning Maybel is here cleaning the house, and we're talking about the typhoons in the Philippines (her home), the wildfires in California (my home) and the mudslides that wiped out parts of Giampilieri, Briga, Altolia, Molino e Scaletta Zanclea just a few miles away from here. We seem united by suffering and dangerous weather.

One thing that impressed us all is the inappropriateness of the television controversy about who's at fault and who's gonna pay, set against the dignity of those who lost everything they ever had, some even their families. These simple village folks gave us all a lesson in what's important and how to act in times of tragedy.

There's a centuries-old feeling of resignation on this trampled island, invaded and abused by every major power in the area: the Greeks, Normans, Spanish, Moors, and now, some say, the Italians. It's suffered earthquakes (1908 - 200,000 dead (compare that with San Francisco)), fires, floods, heatwaves, etc., and, in the last hundred and fifty years, the substitution of the weak, corrupt central government with the strong, blood-sucking Mafia.

So it's another sad season, and, much as we'd like to mourn indefinitely, life will soon be back to normal (or is this normal?).

As the great Helen Keller said: "Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it."

Happy trials, Martin

October 3, 2009

nature goes nuts

I was on the phone wishing my mother a happy 80th birthday when the thunder started to boom and rattle. A few minutes later it rained hard, as much rain in three hours as we usually get in six months. Somebody called it a rain bomb. About ten miles south of here entire mountains slid down to the sea crushing villages on their way. They think there may be sixty people killed by the mud. We're mixing mourning, blame and rescue.

I'm watching more local news today than normal. This hit very close. Previously, I was concerned and perplexed by the earthquakes, typhoons, tsunamis and general chaos in the Pacific. The scientists explain it, and we still ask: hey what's going on?

Last winter it rained virtually every day for five months. Then the whole island burned in the summer (the dry grass and bushes and the few trees still standing). As the saying goes: this earth was a nice place until THEY moved in and ruined it. (They is us.)

Happy trials, Martin

October 2, 2009

My friend Hyla Bolsta (see my links) sent me this, and I immediately asked if I could include it in my blog. Here you are:

Lost Bearings of the Mundane
Hyla Shifra Bolsta

I live in a tilt, sliding along with the rest of the game. Rocks, beaches, the sea, the birds, nothing has escaped and found its bearings; all of us unhinged, going down together into the history of life; no harness on reality, no course we know to rely on. Penguins and polar bears can’t count on the seasons, the ice or the water, nor can we. What floats to the top is a new standard that as yet we cannot spell. It reaches inside everything but has not touched down and claimed its name.

It’s as if the earth shifted its axis and plunged askew into new orbit. Yet I remain unchanged, superficially loving the familiar, finding beauty in the world that has created and defined my aesthetics, looking out from a bit of gray matter, immersed and positioned in personal currents. Investigations, injustices, catastrophes and violence penetrate tightly packed cells that take sanctuary in the six-inch space between two bony walls, my Temples. My brain interprets in Shock and Awe; I have lost my bearings.

The mundane isn’t an art or a science, not a path or a discipline, but all that there is. It means worldly, earthly, but a second, rare definition is “indigenous in all parts of the earth.” I’m thinking it may be the one commonality everything shares: Dreams of squirrels collecting food for winter; Spring plants pushing up too early, withering in the frost; Plans for retirement or the next kill; Limits of stability, cliffs falling into dust; Rejections from institutions or the flock; Folding the Laundry, Family Feuds, Marriages, Births, Ambitions and the ease of sharing time over a cup of coffee with your lover in the late afternoon.

What story of mine weighs enough to balance the scales? Silt oozes through ideas that were once clear. Bitter pieces of torn trust fly into my palette and I thank god I refuse to paint angst. Hope, recognition, purpose are constructs belonging to a grounded earth but the ground isn’t solid, the arctic ice has lost its footing in a cold world and fish who were once male are now changing sex in mid-stream.

Is there an art of living the mundane life? Each creature answers, each crystalline lens focuses and each prism refracts light; wavelength upon rainbowed wavelength. On the first sun-stroked day this spring, black carpenter ants swarmed our house. I doubt they think the boards are trees. Can they digest treated wood? Year round, mountain lions creep closer to homes; to what degree has their turf sloped and narrowed? Sonic booms, toxic plankton, runoff from farm pesticides; what’s left for whales?

There are stories of salmon so thick you could reach in and pull them from brooks barehanded, flocks of birds so thick the sky darkened when they flew by, so many whales the air stank from their breath. I’ve read we are down to the last five percent of it all. Lagoons choked, mountains gutted, rivers pushed into paths that leave their animals parched, while dinosaur vehicles guzzle gas on the road to extinction.

“Youtube” brings me glimpses of hubris and shame. An elephant in Thailand holds a brush and paints by rote what they call a self-portrait. Her world is newly insipid; wild, glorious, intelligent life reduced to cheap thrills for tourists now that their forests are decimated and logging is banned. Mundanity skids and I wonder how she copes, if she does.

With six billion cries we can burst through our clouds, through the canopy of air that surrounds this planet and maybe catch life before it drops away. After all, with each line I draw, I destroy what’s there to create what I envision will be better. Or instead, with one enormous shriek or a pitiful whisper, all of us will be taken out.

If there is an art to living in this earthly world, it could be that it’s going gracefully, knowing that, like the old story about five blind men, we touch a small part of the elephant. Unlike those codgers who’ll always debate the nature of the beast, we who see could rejoice in our senses and accept not knowing the truth.