Summer of Love

Sgt. PepperThe Fab Four kicking off the Summer of Love fifty years ago (almost today)

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.  So claimed William Shakespeare, and who dares to contradict the Great Bard?  The Skeptical Malt Ball, that’s who.  Names are everything.  Italian restaurants usually have Italian names.  There’s something off-putting about Schultz’s Italian Eatery.  Names give us hooks on which to hang our perceptions.  So it is with the Summer of Love, celebrating its 50th birthday this year.

For those who don’t know about that particular summer, it took place in the year 1967.  Someone must have thought that a special name was needed to distinguish that summer from the summer of 1966. The main difference between the two was pop culture.  ’66 was black and white TV, button-down collared shirts, button-down everything.  The Summer of Love was sudden, full color.  It wasn’t just color either; it was bold, psychedelic color.  There were explosions of color.  Patterns were in-your-face. Stripes and modest checks gave way to bursts of paisley.  Girls’ clothing went through a revolution with the paper dress, but boys were safe for a few more years; their ‘65-‘66 stuff was still okay in ’67.

Paper Dresses

Music changed that summer.  A mere twelve months earlier, every pop group looked like the Beatles.  Matching haircuts (bangs) and matching suits.  A world that had been rocked first by Elvis, then in an even bigger way by the Fab Four, had found a way to preserve its sanity.  If all the groups looked basically the same, they could all be put in the same box.  Things couldn’t get too crazy.  But then came Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, with the Beatles breaking all the rules again.  How could sanity be preserved in a world where the Beatles no longer looked like the Beatles?   Where did those mustaches come from?  And the 19th Century marching band suits in psychedelic colors?  One teen magazine printed a picture of the transformed Beatles over a caption reading “Is this the beginning of the end?  Probably.”  Sure enough, they broke up just two years later.  But in ’67 they seemed to pave the way for wild groups like the Doors and Jefferson Airplane.  Pop lyrics jumped from “The mornin’ sun is shinin’ like a red rubber ball” to “One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small.  And the ones that mother gives you, don’t do anything at all.  Go ask Alice, when she’s ten feet tall.”

Most people did not go psychedelic. They went on working, paying their bills, enjoying their backyard barbeques.  They maintained the status quo while the world changed around them.  The alterations were presented to them in manageable, bite-size doses on TV.  The “boob tube” didn’t tell them that thinking was changing.  Yes, there are always thoughts behind events.  Everything seemed quaint, amusing, safe.  Look what the kids are doing now.

In the summer of 1967 a gallon of gas cost you 33 cents.  A movie ticket came to $1.25.  The average income was $7,300.00.  Israel won a six day war against Egypt and its allies.  Thurgood Marshall was confirmed to be the first black Supreme Court Justice, and the Court stopped states from making interracial marriage illegal.  A new magazine came out by the name of Rolling Stone.  The Constitution was amended again, and Mohammad Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title for refusing induction into the military.  The Corporation for Public Broadcasting was created.

Every year has its news, and with the news comes change.  In that sense, 1967 was no different than any other year.  So why is it remembered as something special?  Simple.  Shakespeare was wrong.  A rose by any other name would NOT smell as sweet.  Calling it a sausage would dent the allure somehow.  1967 might have been just another year that had a summer.  Like every other year.  The unhappy effects of drugs on the takers and their families plus an escalating war in Vietnam hardly made for thoughts of love.  But that particular summer, by getting the name Summer of Love, became (to borrow some other words from Shakespeare) the stuff that dreams are made on.  In this case, the name gave the flower its scent.

Surrealistic Pillow

You can tell that it’s not 1966 anymore.

Not Quite Moving On

Clock

I once knew of a junior high school that staged a yearly graduation ceremony they called “Moving On.”  The word for what the ceremony actually was never appeared in the proceedings.  It was as though the people staging it were unaware that calling something by a different name doesn’t make it something different.   Were they afraid of stealing the high school’s thunder by using the G-word?   Were they captivated by an imagined sense of unique ingenuity?  Whatever the reason for the name change, the concept was wrong.  Their graduates were only partly moving on.

In this season of graduations (or if you prefer, of movings on), let’s reflect on what graduation is and what it isn’t.  At its heart, graduation is one of life’s pivotal moments.  It basically means concluding the work you’ve been doing and leaving the place where you’ve been doing it.  On the night of my high school graduation, a friend and I walked around our small town into the wee hours, finally ending up back on campus.  But as we sat in the football bleachers, the sprawling building – once our home turf – brooded darkly in the distance.  We knew it didn’t want us anymore.  We no longer belonged.

But what we’d learned there, the ways in which we’d changed, the experiences we’d had, the people – teachers and peers – we’d come to like and respect (and some others who’d occasionally made life as pleasurable as a three-day flu ) were all still with us.  We weren’t moving on from that.  The substance of what we’d come through – and the ways that it had affected us – wouldn’t be left behind.  In short, we do graduate from times and places, but we do not graduate from our formative moments.

And that leads to another point about graduation.  We didn’t realize all that formative stuff was formative when it was happening.  It’s like realizing that life is made up of seconds, but not understanding that every second is taking us somewhere.  To another point in life.  The little things:  that comment by a teacher or a parent or a friend, that seemingly insignificant decision or that encounter we thought would never matter in the long run somehow turn out to shape us.

So if you’re a participant in this graduating season, think not about what you’re leaving, but rather of what you’re taking with you.  Yes, we must never stand still.  We must continue to grow, to progress, hopefully to improve.  To move on.  But as we do, let us continue to be informed by those little places within us where we are still each of the ages we were when the hammer and chisel of experience performed their finest work.  We are not, after all, the sum of what will be, but rather, of what has been.

Spare Him the Sight!

charlie chaplin

What is a skeptical malt ball for if not to express skepticism?  With this truth in mind, let us proceed to an evaluation of the modern movie theater.  In days of old, people went to the movies to. . .well, to see movies.  There were giants then.  Citizen Kane, The Ten Commandments, Spartacus.  These and other films were populated by actors and actresses who were as larger than life as the titles in which they appeared.  On the twenty-fifth anniversary of MGM, studio boss Louis B. Mayer gathered his galaxy of stars around him for a photo op.  He had just one thing to say: “More stars than there are in heaven.”

The theaters where the movies appeared were big too.  They were palaces filled with glistening and elaborate ornamentation.  One such palace featured a rotunda ceiling in which Reela, the goddess of cinema, soared heavenward with an unraveling movie.  These weren’t multiplexes.  One theater featured one movie.  Sometimes they ran double features.  And no matter how elaborate the theater, the seats were of basic design.  Often adorned in red velvet, but basic.  The refreshments consisted of popcorn and candy.

That’s the scene Charlie Chaplin looked out on from those bygone movie screens.  When he started in pictures, people sat on benches, and the only sound was a piano player in the back corner.  So the basic theater seat was considered a plush advancement. The basic theater seat lasted for generations.  Dictators and hair styles came and went, but the theater seat stayed put.

Movie Palace

Then something happened.  Someone got the bright idea that people might go to the movies for something other than movies.  It seemed as counter-intuitive as asking a girl for a date while belching, but a new era was apparently dawning. Today’s movie theaters have as much glamour as the average hospital.  They consist of hallways where hapless people wander in search of the door under a sign matching the name on their ticket.  These tickets must be bought “online” in advance.  If you show up trying to buy a ticket the old fashioned way, you sit with your face pressed against the screen. If you get in at all.

The seats are now three times the size of classic seating, which explains why every show sells out so quickly.  They are bulbous recliners that seem more appropriate to napping than to viewing.  Sitting in them feels like occupying the chair in the Lincoln Memorial.  And who bothers with popcorn when there are servers to take and deliver your dinner order?  If the movie proves disappointing, no problem.  Just keep downing the alcoholic beverages the theater sells.  Let everything melt into a psychedelic nirvana.

What would Mr. Chaplin think were he to peer out from the screen of a modern theater?  Let’s not think about it.  Happily, he’ll never have to see the contemporary hordes snoozing in their overstuffed recliners, slabs of pizza awaiting their attention on pullout trays, half-consumed beers stuck in the drink holders.  Perhaps the best way to state the situation is to paraphrase the words of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.   Movie going used to be big.  It still is.  It’s the theaters that got smaller.

HAPPY NEW YEAR?

new-years-eve-iii

I dread running into people I know at this time of year.  The reason for my reluctance is the inevitable question: “Are you doing anything for New Year’s?”  The question is stuffed with expectation.  After all, New Year’s (formerly New Year’s Eve before people got lazy and clipped off the last word) is supposed to be the Atomic Bomb Mushroom Cloud of parties, the difference between a five star restaurant decked out with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the city, and the local McDonald’s.  New Year’s is the Big Occasion; if you’re not there, you’re square.

But where did we get this idea?  When did people start seeing New Year’s as a mythical Eldorado, a glistening ideal that must be chased but can never quite be caught?  Personally, I blame the whole thing on movies that were made during the 1930’s.  In a Depression-ravaged country filled with people who didn’t know where their next meal was coming from, movies were the Great Escape.  For a dime, people with holes in their shoes could attend elegant parties and hobnob with the stars (if only through the fantasy of the silver screen).  So Hollywood laid it on thick.  In glorious black and white everyone looked as luminous as a Greek god.  And the Crescendo of musicals, romances, and adventures was New Year’s Eve.  All the movie men wore white tie and tails while their women adorned themselves in blindingly glittering gowns.  They danced gaily in impossibly glamorous and upscale halls where 25-piece orchestras played lush tunes endlessly.  On the stroke of midnight the band belted out Auld Lang Syne, while oceans of shiny balloons and silvery streamers descended on hundreds of impossibly beautiful people passionately engaged in impossibly dazzling kisses.

Whether anyone remembers these movies or not, we’re all still breathing their cultural exhaust.  That’s why people ask each other the Big Question.  That’s also why the answers are always bound to be disappointing.  No white tie and tails.  No legions of popping champagne bottles.  Maybe a living room populated with ten or fifteen drab people drinking because they feel like that’s what they’re supposed to do.  Like the party I once attended dressed in a suit because I was reaching for Fred Astaire in a world of tee shirts and ragged jeans.  A drunk guy approached me, and asked me my name and what my job was.  Two minutes after I told him he asked me again, and I gave him a different answer.  He kept asking, and I kept making stuff up.  By the time I walked away, I was Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine, a distinction which earned only a casual nod from my inebriated acquaintance.

So the next time you feel let down by “New Year’s” remember whom to blame.  Old Hollywood, that moneyed crowd of thin mustaches and penciled eyebrows, is responsible.  As I sit there on the evening of 12/31 thinking of ways to evade telling people about my New Year’s, I’ll be wishing that those mythical movie stars had drowned in their glassy balloons.  New Year’s?  Bah, Humbug!

new-years-eve-ii

Good News!

FRONT PAGE

Why are we so hung up on the Olympics while the world seems to be falling down around us?  Precisely because the world is falling down around us.  As Ira Gershwin once wrote, “With politics and taxes, and people grinding axes, there’s no happiness.”  We crave good news.  Election coverage adds to whatever anxieties we already have.  The Middle East?  Russia?  Natural disasters at home and abroad?  Wars and rumors of wars?  Then  Simone Biles wins multiple gold medals, and for just a moment the walls don’t seem to be closing in as relentlessly.

Perhaps that’s why we sometimes pay so much attention to sports in general. Even if the euphoria of victory on the field or the court or the mat fades quickly, at least we had euphoria.  At least there was a flicker of relief from the latest crisis.  And even when our team or our athlete loses, at least the winner doesn’t have the power to raise our taxes or regulate our lives.  In the case of the Olympics, we have the privilege of seeing a host of young people who are models of self-discipline and drive.  We can admire abilities that took years of tireless, determined effort to build.  Like the best of the best that they are, the Olympians make it look easy.  The way Fred Astaire made dancing look easy.  The way the Beatles made music look easy.

Recently, the editor of the newspaper in my small town wrote an editorial in which she requested that readers inform the paper of any positive, uplifting news in the community.  She expressed her belief that too often, the bad news is the star of the show.  And how right she was.  Years ago, a co-worker told me that he never ate while watching the news.  He explained that the news and good digestion were incompatible.  Think of the famous headlines of history such as “Titanic Sinks” or “Stock Market Crashes!”  It seems as though the only good news is bad news, or at least that seems to be the perspective of the media that transmit news.

Why were movie musicals so popular during the Great Depression?  For a few coins, we could imagine ourselves in beautiful evening clothes, dancing our way up silvery staircases to a life of limitless possibilities and endless positivity.  We escaped – at least mentally – the question of where our next meal was coming from.  The musicals spread the good news that even in troubled times, it was possible to find at least a little happiness here and there.

So enjoy the good news of the Olympics and the stories of people who reach the century mark and still have their wits about them and the couples celebrating their sixtieth wedding anniversary and the young people making valuable community contributions.  They remind us that despite it’s “sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,” life can be beautiful.

Shut Up!

When I was in high school they used to show a film that started with a guy in a Nazi uniform putting on a swastika armband.  As the camera drew back, you could see he was on a contemporary American street among many passersby. He started handing out leaflets, getting frowns for his trouble.

The idea of the film was that Constitutional free speech meant the freedom to say things that other people might find offensive.  In those days, Nazi rhetoric was considered the ultimate in offensive speech.  Today, the standard has changed to anything Donald Trump happens to be saying.

Maybe we should review the source for the whole free speech idea.  It’s the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

It was a little hard to swallow back in the old days that somebody could actually stand on a street corner and say a bunch of Nazi stuff and get away with it under the First Amendment.  The free speech idea is still difficult for some people.  For example, some college campuses like Yale have “safe zones” where students are “safe” from any speech that offends them.

The First Amendment has been used to justify a lot of things that the people who wrote it never imagined it applying to. The real focus was speech about politics and society.  That was the kind of speech that was important to a country that had recently managed to fight its way out from under what they saw as an oppressive  Big Government, the rulership of Britain.

So I was surprised the other day when I listened to a Donald Trump speech, and heard disruptive outbursts from protesters about every four minutes.  It might be argued that they had a right to protest.  However, the security guards escorting them out were evidence that they didn’t have a right to protest inside the hall where the speech was taking place. This is happening a lot.

But there is a bigger concern, a concern far greater than whether or not a Donald Trump speech is disrupted.   If we’ve come to the point of shouting down every idea with which we disagree, we’re in trouble.  It seems self-contradictory to use speech for the purpose of shutting off speech.  We’ve already seen in history what happens when the right to speak is dictated by the group with the loudest volume.  I don’t hear such disruptions at Hillary speeches.  Is this because nobody disagrees with her?  Hmm.

The purpose of this piece is not to defend or promote any political candidate.  Perhaps it is simply to remind ourselves of something Rod Serling once said: “For civilization to survive, the human race has to remain civilized.”  Telling people whose ideas don’t jibe with our own to shut up is the first step toward a place where none of us really want to be.

Cary Grant

Did he accidentally violate a “safe zone?”

 

 

 

Is Donald Trump King Kong?

Are you having trouble dealing with the Presidential campaign of 2016?  We’ve had weird before.  Teddy Roosevelt and his “Bull Moose” party.  Strange.  William Jennings Bryan and the “Cross of Gold” speech.  Stranger.  LBJ treating reporters to a look at the surgical scar on his flabby stomach.  Stranger than strange.  Now we have perhaps the strangest twist ever to burst onto the scene of Presidential politics.  With a population in excess of three hundred million people, Americans have somehow chosen Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to compete for the most powerful position in the world.

Getting a handle on this bizarre election requires bizarre tactics.  So instead of comparing 2016 to past elections, pull out a new frame of reference.  Only the horror/sci-fi movie genre can lead us to a full comprehension of what we’re facing right now.

Let’s start with King Kong v. Godzilla.  Think about it.  If you’re a pedestrian in the screaming crowd when King Kong faces off with Godzilla, are you rooting for one monster over the other?  Are you better off if Godzilla wins?  If Kong triumphs?  No, you’re just trying to get out of there between the falling skyscrapers!  But looking at these movie characters helps us better understand the characters fighting on our Presidential stage.  Who’s who?  It’s obvious, isn’t it?  Godzilla is a calculating fire breather.  Kong is a lumbering ape who lets his emotions get ahead of him every time.  You decide who’s who.  Using this analytical lens, we suddenly gain a clearer picture of what we have here.  And again, which way are you better off? (Watch out for that building!)

King Kong v. Godzilla

Want another lens?  Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman.  Which is which?  Again, it’s obvious.  The Wolfman is vicious.  He will tear your throat out because that’s what he does.  When you see the Wolfman coming you have to hide.  The way White House staffers used to duck through doors to avoid First Lady Hillary.  Frankenstein is big, clumsy, and uncomprehending.  He doesn’t mean to do the damage he does.  He can’t help it.  Either way though, you don’t want to be on hand to celebrate the victor, do you?

Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman

Finally, let’s look at Billy the Kid Meets Dracula.  Yes, there really was such a movie.  It’s hard to believe, but then it’s even harder to believe that we’re having this Presidential campaign.  In B.K Meets Drac, You have a ruthless Old West outlaw versus the Prince of Darkness.  Billy is frighteningly freewheeling, and doesn’t give a flip for consequences.  Count Dracula is a careful, cunning bloodsucker.  Billy is always unscripted; the Count measures every word and every move.  Again, you figure out who fits whom,  AND, ask the question: which adversary do you want to see win?  Really.

billy-the-kid-vs-dracula-42

The good news is that in horror/sci-fi movies the two battling forces usually end up destroying each other.  They’re both eliminated in the end so that the world can go back to sleep.  Perhaps what we need in this Presidential race is a little movie magic.

They’re Watching!

Shadow Figures

We hear a lot about privacy today.  People say they want it.  They claim to be upset when their privacy is violated.  For example, they don’t want the government snooping into their personal lives.  Whatever that means.  Yet they do want their Facebook friends to know what they had for breakfast.  And what they thought of it.

Whether you’re a privacy freak or whether your life is a social media reality show doesn’t matter.  Why?  Because They’re watching.  They know.

They who?  Never mind; They are there and They are aware of your life.  They even know how much of it you have left.  Years ago, well before I had any reason to think about it, I received my first invitation to move into a retirement home.  Where did the retirement home (Let’s call it Sunnyvale)  get the idea that I was a prospective tenant?  Obviously They told them.  The shadowy figures who keep track of us passed on the information.  Probably for a price.  I sure didn’t put my age on Facebook!

That first unwanted invitation started it all. Through the years, I continued to get unwanted invitations.  Invitations for macular degeneration checkups.  Invitations for  other rest homes.  Happy Valley.  Peaceful  Acres. Ads for drugs that aging people might need to perk up those failing bodily functions.

I started to take it all for granted, comforting myself with the lie that I wasn’t as old as They thought I was.  Not only did I not need Their notices; I would never need them.  After all, I had no plans to let myself get to such a sorry state that assisted living would be an option.  At a certain point, I would freeze my deterioration and refuse to age any further.

Beware Millennials: You’re probably thinking the same thing.  You can’t see yourselves aging can you?  Your skin will always be as resiliently taut as it is today; nothing will ever droop.  But They are watching.  Patiently.  They are counting your hours.  They are scheduling the first invitation.

And how do you know when your time is up?  They will tell you.  Don’t shake your head at me; I know.  How?  They told me, that’s how!  Yeah, They actually sent me notice that my hourglass has a scary shortage of sand in the top section.  The other day, I got the final invitation.  It wasn’t about assisted living this time.  It wasn’t about any kind of living.  It was from the Neptune Society.  An offer for their “pre-paid cremation” program.

I didn’t open it.  Wouldn’t that be submitting to Their verdict?  But I can imagine the content anyway: “Getting ready to cash in those chips?  The last roundup’s getting pretty close, isn’t it pardner?  Don’t leave those final arrangements to others.  Don’t make survivors have to worry about what to do with your remains.  Think how relieved your family will be when the Neptune Society informs them that it’s all taken care of. . .”

Yikes!  Sleep well tonight, Millennials.  Don’t be concerned about anything.  They’ll tell you when to be concerned.

Trump: The Bigger Circus

A new political season is upon us, and we’re being treated to another round of the media’s favorite sport: The Death of a Thousand Cuts.   This sport involves targeting a candidate for a barrage of negative reporting until people wonder how they ever could have considered that person viable. When Sarah Palin was nominated for Vice-President she was a popular governor. But the media’s thousand cuts quickly turned her into a bimbo and former governor.

Now it’s Donald Trump’s turn. Not that he doesn’t sometimes cut himself.  Even his supporters probably recognize that the Mr. Nice Guy award should go to someone else. His angry man persona is not the product of a media writer’s imagination. And we won’t even discuss the hair. But if you’ve been paying attention, the media does seem to have decided to employ its sharpened scalpels on Mr. Trump.

One commentator has predicted that Mr. Trump is destined to fall because he’s supposedly a “throwback” candidate. Too much dependence on media attention. Very uncool. Another political observer says that Trump will fall because women don’t like him. This editorial is illustrated with a series of mind-numbing graphs measuring the female reaction to Mr. Trump from six or seven different perspectives. Republican voters, general election voters, etc.

TRUMP

Then there are the stories. Mr. Trump blames crime on undocumented Mexicans. Mr. Trump has a racist advisor. Mr. Trump calls former POW John McCain a loser. Mr. Trump defends the notion that there is no such thing as rape between married people. Trump-owned companies seek to import foreign workers for his hotels and restaurants, contradicting his stand on protecting American jobs. Even Jimmy Kimmel has gotten into the act, running a montage of Mr. Trump overusing the term “disgusting.” Can you count the cuts? Fast and furious.

Ultimately though, it won’t be the media’s cuts that break Mr. Trump. His ascent or descent will be up to him. This is because he is a bigger circus on his own than any circus the media can manufacture. This was true of Teddy Roosevelt and his cousin FDR. It was also true of LBJ. These men were – for better or worse – larger than life, as Donald Trump seems to be. But perhaps the 20th Century titan with whom Mr. Trump is most comparable is William Jennings Bryan.  History fans will recall Bryan as a man who habitually connected himself with crusades that by today’s standards appear more than a little eccentric.  A perennial presidential candidate, Bryan capped his career by taking part in the infamous Scopes “Monkey Trial.”  The trial demonstrated the fine line between contender and cartoon.

But let us not underestimate Mr. Trump.  As FDR demonstrated over and over again, a thousand cuts don’t always, well, cut it. The suggested course of action for members of the media is to sit this one out. It’s Mr. Trump’s show; all you can do is monitor the ratings.