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29 December 2010

Goodbye Mr. Rockwell

I have never been a big fan of Norman Rockwell.  His paintings always struck me as superficial and as portraying an aggrandized America that I cannot stand.  I've always been much more of an Edward Hopper person because his paintings, to me, capture the historical moment while revealing simultaneously the beauty and desolation of contemporary America.

However,  having recently taken in the Rockwell special exhibit at the Museum of American Art in Washington, I've changed my mind... about Rockwell, that is.
"Tender Years: New Calendar" 1957

Edward Hopper, "Nighthawks" 1942
The title of the exhibit is "Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg." It was the Lucas and Spielberg connection that drew me in and invited me to reconsider my views on Rockwell, literally.  I'm a great admirer of both of these film makers, especially Lucas. Certainly, I've enjoyed very much his Star Wars films and, over the years, really have come to appreciated the various influences underpinning that franchise, such as Kurosawa and Eastern religion and philosophy. However, it is Lucas's American Graffiti has always especially struck me as capturing extraordinarily well -- like a Hopper painting -- the historical moment, along with the beauty and desolation of contemporary America.

"American Graffiti" 1973
Never had I thought of American Graffiti as belonging to the same genre as a Rockwell painting. I was wrong. In the 12-minute documentary accompanying the exhibit, Lucas and Spielberg talk about Rockwell as a teller of the American story, just as they are with film.  Lucas, in fact, refers to American Graffiti at least twice. They discuss Rockwell's process -- auditioning models, choosing the clothing and other props, taking multiple photos to determine the correct staging, etc. -- and how it was similar to their work as film makers.  Moreover, the stories Rockwell was telling were, like American Graffiti or Schindler's List, hardly superficial.  The paintings, when really examined, convey complex, everyday human emotions. Almost all of the paintings display relationships that everyone can relate to: Husbands and wives, media and celebrity, teacher and student, youngsters playing marbles or dancing with each other awkwardly at a party. Rockwell was a master at telling American stories with great sensitivity while allowing lots of room for interpretation by the "listener." Much of the humor undergirding many of the paintings is of the sweet, sympathetic sort. Even sentimental, dare I say it.

"Pardon Me (Children Danding at a Party)" 1918
But, so what. A Rockwell painting makes you smile because, as with any good story, you relate to the feelings the characters are experiencing and you kind of feel sorry for them and for yourself. The feelings evoked by the paintings makes you feel totally normal -- that it's okay, for example, to have stepped on a girl's toes and become embarrassed when you were 12 years old and trying to dance and be cool; that it's okay that you took that lousy job as waitress or coat-and-hat-checker in Hollywood or Manhattan while you waited, in vain, to make it big in the movies or on Broadway. We all make mistakes. We're all suckers. We all have imaginations and dreams. We, men, are always stricken dumb by beautiful women. We, women, always want to look and feel beautiful.

"The Flirts" 1941
And then there is the nostalgia. Rockwell captured a period of American history, from the late 1910s to the mid-1960s in which our country transformed into an industrial, military, economic, social, and political powerhouse. Some of the paintings convey that explicitly but most of them don't.  The paintings stop just prior to the American loss of innocence that began in the late 1960s and that we have been struggling with as a nation ever since. The period covered by the paintings was, at least for White Americans, one characterized by widespread neighborly trust and moral simplicity. Indeed, I'd even go so far as to say that, even within communities of color at that time, there was also a surplus of neighborly trust and certainly the same type of moral simplicity. That surplus and simplicity has evaporated and, instead, we are faced with a trust deficit and moral complexity of enormous proportions.  The problem lies not with the moral complexity -- in that sense, our society has advanced markedly -- but, rather, with the deficit of trust.

As I was reflecting on my newfound appreciation of Rockwell I thought of my mother who died this past October at 79. She, and my father who passed away in 1992, were a part of the so-called Greatest Generation.  It was this generation that, along with the generation preceding it, created the trust-surplus society. And sadly, it was also this generation that, along with the generation following it, created the trust-deficit society.  

That "greatest" generation is almost gone now. We Boomers, Lucas and Spielberg included, are now   on the front lines of society, joined by the older Xers. Perhaps we can put Humpty Dumpty back together again, at least somewhat.  In the meantime, let us, together, bid goodbye to Mr. Rockwell and his stories of an America that was and will not be again.

16 November 2010


Saturday afternoon
We showed up an hour early
Doors at Ike's locked
Call the bartender
He comes when he comes

We just wanted to
Play music
Load in anyway
Wait outside
Set up some bongos
Play for the people
Strolling past
As the sun sets

Sergio swings by and listens
Pulls out his flimsy six string
His English is
As good as my Spanish
"You know Guantanamera?"
"Yeah, I know it"

He sings it
He plays it
I play it
We play it
The sun sets

The bartender shows up
Unlocks the door
In three hours
The night will begin
I will be with kindred


Photos of Bob, Tom and Bruce by Danny Clinch @ http://www.dannyclinch.com
Photo of Mark with The Road at Chief Ike's Mambo Room Adams Morgan DC by Maureen Leary @  http://www.facebook.com/TheRoadDC

28 October 2010

"Learning our game, cutting our chops..."

The title of this post comes from Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones.

Keith was describing to radio talk show host Terri Gross how he and Mick Jagger struggled to learn how to write songs for the Stones when they were starting out all those year ago. That made me think about my own band, The Road.

Unlike the Stones, we don't write our own songs. That's too much work and we're too old and too busy...and not talented enough, frankly.  Rather, we play other people's songs.  A number of tunes from the Grateful Dead, some from the Stones, several from Bob Dylan and a bunch from other artists of the same general jam band/roots rock/folk-rock/hippie watchamacallit music genre.

So we've been playing together for a few years and, in that time, we've taken the songs of others and made them our own.  As Keith says: Learning our game, cutting our chops...

Have a listen and enjoy.

17 July 2010

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to heaven!

I want to take a moment to reflect on the passing this past week of Bob Sheppard, the New York Yankees' longtime public address announcer, and George Steinbrenner, the former principal owner of the most famous sports franchise in history. 

Messrs. Sheppard and Steinbrenner were important figures during my growing up years in northern New Jersey, in a bedroom community of New York City. I loved baseball when I was a kid.  I was passionate about it.  But, frankly, I was really most passionate about the New York Yankees.  Sure, I was a baseball fan. But I was mostly a Yankee Fan.  There's a big difference.  During the years 1973 to 1981 I lived and died with my Yankees.  Mr. Sheppard and Mr. Steinbrenner were there for all of it and beyond.

The fact that Mr. Sheppard and Mr. Steinbrenner died the same week is, to me, an extraordinary metaphor.  Mr. Sheppard was the very public reflection of the Yankees' grace and beauty.  He was precise.  He was elegant.  He was clear.  He was understated yet charismatic. He was the quiet, intellectual, creative, artistic, and thoughtful side of New York.  He grew up there. Born and raised.

Mr. Steinbrenner was a bully. He was inelegant. He was brash.  He was all about winning and making money.  He was mean.  He was a narcissist.  He was the brauny, ugly, arrogant side of New York.  And he wasn't even a New Yorker.  He was from Ohio and he lived in Tampa, Florida. So, he was sort of a fraud. He bought everything and he thought that doing so legitimized him. He was a Republican and, by the way, not the so-called Rockefeller sort. He was a Nixon guy. I hated him.  Yes, yes, I know he was "larger than life" and all that, but I hated him. Of course, I didn't know him.  But I certainly hated the values he represented. When I heard of his passing, I did not feel badly.  I suppose I should have felt sorry for him.  He was a jerk.  An old man with a baseball team and lots of money.  No solid personal relationships.  His kids, who now own the team, seem like parasites.  But, I'll admit, perhaps I hated him so much because I envied him just a little. Perhaps even because I've got a little of that Steinbrenner-like narcissism, raw ambition, and meanness inside of me.
Did I mention that I hated him? One of the reasons I really hated Mr. Steinbrenner was that he -- and everyone else -- knew that he was the future of Major League Baseball; not Bob Sheppard.  Mr. Sheppard, who worked for Mr. Steinbrenner, of course, contributed style and grandeur to Hack Steinbrenner's team. But, make no mistake, it was Steinbrenner's team and Major League Baseball would come to be his game.

I suppose I should thank Mr. Steinbrenner for taking over the Yankees in the early 1970s and restoring the club to it's place as the World's Most Important Team. Certainly, as a fan, I benefitted from it.  When I first started paying attention to the Yankees, they were an unremarkable team.  They really had no superstars.  The team had a few solid, and up and coming players, like Bobby Murcer, Lou Piniella, and Thurman Munson, but they were pretty boring and the Yankees were losers. Mr. Steinbrenner changed that: He signed free-agent pitcher Catfish Hunter in 1975 from Oakland and paid him a million dollars -- the first million dollar player in professional sports.

It was the beginning of the beginning and the beginning of the end.  The beginning of the beginning of the Yankees' newfound winning.  The beginning of the end of the innocence and elegance of professional baseball.  Then came Billy Martin, Mickey Rivers, Willie Randolph, Billy Martin, and the inimitable Reggie Jackson.  And, oh yes, Billy Martin.

I attended several Yankee games during those salad days of my youth.  We'd drive the hour from New Jersey to the Bronx with my Little League buddies or just me, mom, and dad.  We'd sit in the nosebleed section. (Except once when my buddy's dad, who was a VP with the now long defunct Bankers Trust, had his office's first-base line box seats.  We yelled over to Sweet Lou who was warming up in the on-deck circle waving about thirty bats with doughnuts on them.  He glanced over to us and winked, or at least we imagined he did. Truly Sweet.) And we would munch on our dogs and slurp our Cokes and listen to the poetry of the Voice of God, Bob Sheppard: "Now bat-ting. Ing. Ing. Number For-ty Four. Or. Or. Reg-gie Jack-sun. Un. Un."  Yes, I had gone to heaven.

I watched and listened to every Yankee game on TV or radio.  I hung on every morning's report in the Newark Star-Ledger of the previous day's or night's action.  Jerry Izenberg, my mom's classmate at Newark's South Side High, wrote an awesome column in the Ledger's sports pages and, quite often, his topic was the Yankees' soap opera -- the Bronx Zoo, they called it.  It was great fun for the adult fans. They didn't take it seriously.  But for this boy it was just embarrassing and ugly.  How could adults behave that way? But I kept watching and listening because this team dominated.  They were exciting.  They were everything I was not: talented, muscular, big, powerful, handsome, athletic, and New York.

It was the team of Ron Guidry, Tommy John, Ed Figueroa, Mike Torrez, and Sparky Lyle.  Pity the batters who had to deal with their stuff. Louisiana Lightning (or the Rajun Cajun, if you prefer), threw two pitches -- a fastball and slider -- and he threw them very, very well.  That staff had multiple 20-game winners. It was the team of the New Murderer's Row: Rivers, Randolph, Munson, Jackson, Chambliss, and Piniella in that order. Pity the pitchers who had to face that onslaught.  The poor Kansas City Royals could not catch a break.

That team was assembled by Mr. Steinbrenner.  It was announced and honored by Mr. Sheppard. With the death of Bob Sheppard, the true elegance of the National Pastime has finally, well, passed.  It is gone. There are no more Sparky's, Goose's, Yaz's, Oil Can's, Joltin' Joe's, The Mick's, El Tiante's.  There is no more Bird, Spaceman, Mad Hungarian, Scooter, or Say Hey. Now we have vanilla, boring-as-dirt pretty boys. They need juice to feel good about themselves. Fine players many, to be sure.  But with no personality and little character.

Thanks to Mr. Steinbrenner and the new breed of baseball fat cat, we've got things like "naming rights" that allow us the great privilege of attending baseball games in corporate stadiums called "Coors Field," "Safeco Field," and "Citizens Bank Park."  Baseball stadiums were once places, primarily, of community. They are now, primarily, places of commerce.  Of ten-dollar beers and eight-dollar hot dogs. Cap nights with the Exxon/Mobil insignia emblazoned on the rear. Bat days with Burger King on the barrel. Whoops! I forgot, they don't really do bat days anymore.  Too expensive perhaps? More likely, the owners have been counseled by their lawyers that they would be too "exposed" if, for example, an irate fan who was mad as hell and couldn't take it anymore decided to use one of those bats to bash in the team boss's head as he and his clean cut chums chomped cigars and swigged single malt while sitting in those several-thousand-dollars per game corporate seats located behind home plate.

In the film, Field of Dreams, here's what the character,  ex-radical author Terrence Mann, had to say about baseball:

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.

Bob Sheppard is gone and, with him, all that once was good about Major League Baseball and America.  It is over and it simply cannot be again.  George Steinbrenner,  gone though he may be,  is, sadly, very much the future of the major leagues and my beloved country. It is his spirit, alas, that will carry on.

[Note: The title of this post consists of words spoken by Bob Sheppard's son, Paul, as quoted in Mr. Sheppard's obituary from the New York Times, July 12, 2010.]

02 June 2010

Today is a Connected Day

This date, June 2, is a very special one for my family.

On this date, in 1991, Jennifer and I became married in Dearborn, Michigan.  Across the street from Ford World Headquarters. On this date, in 1992, my sister Ruth gave birth to a beautiful girl. A girl, Lily, an emerging young woman now, who creates beautiful things with her eyes, hands, and imagination. On this date, in 1998, my sister Hildy died at 42 from complications related to Lupus. She was funny and smart and cute.

A very special, connected date, indeed. So, I'll start with my marriage.  It was not love at first site for Jennifer and me. I chased after her.  She was ambivalent.  I courted her. She warmed up. I fell for her and she, at last, relented. We've grown up together, My Rare Jen and I. We've been married for a while but we've been together longer-- half of our lives.  She knew me before I knew myself.  When I was just starting to really figure myself out and still had miles to go. She nudged me along in that process. I didn't know how to live with a woman.  I didn't know how to care for someone else.  I didn't know love beyond the superficial romantic kind. She taught me all of that.  I knew her before she knew herself and, I think she'd agree, I helped her figure herself out a little. When you become married you create a new person. It's like having a baby.  Like a baby, if you don't feed the marriage, it will die. Many marriages die and when they do, it's like a real, tangible person has died. Our marriage is no longer a baby.  It's sort of a young adult.  But we still need to love it and cherish it and feed it. Doing that is much easier now than it used to be.  It kind of comes naturally. We have nothing to prove to each other. The only thing we have to do is continue enjoying each others' company.

Ruth's beautiful daughter, my niece Lily, is an emerging visual artist.  Here's the kind of work she does (and she's just getting warmed up). 

First a self-portrait: 

Second, a woman of unknown origin daydreaming, staring into the gray-white sky, imprisoned by an insipid high school "Time Management Worksheet":

 I don't know whether Lily's art will ever become "important" to the world, but it is extraordinarily important to me and to my children. It is another sign to us of the wondrous talent in our family.

Her father, Brad, is a  brilliant visual artist.  Here's an example of his work.  One of my favorites "Terminal Bar" (1987):

Lily comes from the "Up yours!" branch of the Sherman/Olsen-Ecker family. Later this month she will graduate from high school a year early.  Not because she's ambitious in the traditional way.  Her grades aren't very good.  Rather, she decided that the social scene and demands placed upon her and her ilk by the Public School Administration of Connecticutland USA weren't worth her time or effort. So, her ambition was to get done, get out, and get on with it.  My Old Man, Lily's grandfather whom she never really got to know, and who also came from the Up Yours! branch, would be very proud.  She is a beautiful flower.

And then there is my sister Hildy.  What a tragedy. She is about the funniest person I ever knew.  Hildy is eight years older than me. (Ruth is four years older than her and our other sister, Cindy, is four years younger. I'm the baby.) When we were kids, Hildy would contort her body and walk around like she was completely mental. In turn, I would contort my upper lip, folding it under to expose my upper teeth and gum, which would make me look like a total smiling crazy person along the lines of Jim Carrey's Fire Marshall Bill character (but this was way before that character was created).  It scared the hell out of her.  I loved that.

Hildy turned me on to Bob Dylan, Neil Young, CSN&Y, Leon Russell, and George Carlin. I still have a Dylan book of hers, "Bob Dylan, Approximately" on my home bookshelf.  Hildy, who lived in Florida, would ask me to send her autumn leaves by mail from my home in the mid-Atlantic U.S. because she loved the fall so much.  She loved celebrating holidays. She'd say "I'm in the spirit!" When I graduated from elementary school, she took me to the Livingston Mall where I chose a Peanuts comic book as her gift to me, at which time she declared, unilaterally (laughing) "Because I'm your favorite sister!"

Hildy had some very tough times in her life, her illness was only the worst part. I won't go into it. She and I had some pretty serious disputes in later years and we had a long period of not really talking to each other. Then, when my son was born, Hildy and I buried the hatchet and that was that.  She died the following year.  Her legacy, along with our memories of her laughter, humor, and just sheer lunacy that is difficult to describe, is her progeny:  Daughters Regina and Lisa, who have the values of their mother and are seeing them through in their careers as a social worker and emerging lawyer, respectively: Hildy was a woman of compassion and caring and good, liberal politics. She was generous with her time.  A school teacher (also a tradition in our family) and a businesswoman (ditto). A mom (thritto).

We are all connected.

10 May 2010

Support Public Schools in Washington DC

My kids, Ella and Sam, attend Capital City Public Charter School in Washington, DC. The school was founded by public school teachers and parents 10 years ago because they were fed up with the lame, bureaucratic, poorly performing District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS).

Almost 30,000 children attend charter schools in the District of Columbia. Some charters, like Capital City, are among the finest schools in the city, offering kids a world-class public education in the inner city. So many people said it could never be done.  They were wrong. True enough, there are some charters that aren't doing so well, but the really bad ones have their charters pulled by the Board that oversees these schools. They aren't permitted to linger for years on end, like lousy DCPS schools.

While DCPS schools have seen some improvement over the last couple of years, and we hope to see that improvement continue (because we'd like to be able to send our kids to DCPS schools too), charters have to do more with less because they receive less from the city in per-pupil facilities funding: $2,800 vs. $3,200.

Charters offer an excellent choice to DC parents and are in large part responsible for keeping middle class, and upper middle class white, black, Asian, and Latino families in this city and part of the tax base that helps provide social services to low income families.

For more information, go to http://www.befairdc.org and http://www.focusdc.org.

Here are three videos from the organization Fight for Children, which supports public education in DC. The organization awarded $100,000 to Capital City this year. The children in the videos are from Capital City and our "sister" school, E.L. Haynes Public Charter School.

Look real close and you'll see my son, Sam, in the videos. (He's the one with Queen Latifah at Fight for Children's gala :o) )

Fight For Children - What do you Dream of Being when you Grow Up? from Blue Sky Films on Vimeo.

Fight For Children - Why is an Education Important? from Blue Sky Films on Vimeo.

Fight For Children - Why Should We Give Back? from Blue Sky Films on Vimeo.

18 January 2010

Pride, Part 2

To paraphrase James Taylor, let us now direct our thoughts to Martin Luther King, Jr.

For me, as a Jew, I look to Dr. King as a Jewish and Christian prophet. His message and actions were so rooted in the ideals of Judaism -- especially the concept of tikkun olam ( תיקון עולם healing, repairing, and transforming the world) -- that he must be recognized as an important figure in American Jewish life, on par with his friend Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

I was reminded of the King-Heschel connection at services this past Shabbat when our Rabbi, Sid Schwartz, noted that this weekend was not only dedicated to celebrating Dr. King's birthday, but was also Rabbi Heschel's yahrtzeit, the annual memorial of his death. What's more, Dr. King was assassinated just prior to his leaving Memphis for New York, where he was to celebrate Passover with Rabbi Heschel. (Photo: Heschel, King and other religions leaders marching through Arlington National Cemetery in protest of the Vietnam War.)http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/king/images/goodwin2.jpg

The values of King and Heschel have permeated my work since graduating from law school a bit more than 20 years ago. I was something of a late-comer to their teachings, not really appreciating them until I began reading Tikkun magazine in the late 1980s, which was introduced to me through an article distributed in a law school course on jurisprudence. The article was not about King or Heschel -- I actually think it was on labor theory -- but I thought the idea of a truly left-wing Jewish magazine was intriguing. I'd never seen one. Soon thereafter, I picked up a copy of the magazine at a local bookstore and discovered that its philosophical bent was predicated on the teachings of Heschel who, in turn, had been so influenced by King. I became an avid Tikkun reader for about the next five years, at which point I felt that the magazine had taken a turn for the worse in terms of the quality of its articles and, frankly, what seemed to be the increasing domination by it's editor, Michael Lerner.

So that's how I learned of Heschel and his King connection, and that was all it took for me to adopt MLK as an American Jewish prophet and to decide that, to the degree I could, I would try to fashion my words and deeds from there on in ways he'd appreciate. I don't think I differ very much from Dr. King in terms of values. Perhaps the only area of disgreement regards the use of nonviolence. It certainly has its time and place, but violence also has its time and place. As President Obama noted recently in a speech, nonviolence would not have stopped the Nazis.

Which, of course, brings me to President Obama. For this week, we also celebrate the completion of his first year in office. I use the word "celebrate" intentionally. Yes, this has been a difficult year for the United States and the President. However, the Obama presidency must still be regarded as a Big Deal and a cause for rejoicing: Dr. King paved the way for Barack Obama's presidency. The Obama victory in November 2008 will be regarded as a watershed moment in American history. Nobody would disagree with that, and even the most cynical person and Obama opponent can appreciate the meaning of his victory in American political and sociocultural history.

But, of course, I will go even further: The Obama presidency is to be celebrated because it will be regarded as a transformative moment in American politics and policymaking. This first year has been extraordinarily productive and, in the midst of cleaning up the mess he was left by the prior administration and its corporatist minions, he has laid the groundwork for an equally productive next three years.

I believe that much of this groundwork is difficult for most people to see or comprehend because we are in a period of massive economic tumult and political shifting. We do not trust our political leaders. We are frightened and cowering.

But when we step back to take the long view, which President Obama is all about, the outline of the foundation he is building for far-reaching, progressive social change becomes clearer . His vision is quite clear: Health care, energy, and education. Three public goods. Yes, financial regulatory reform has become a major domestic priority, and there's a whole world of foreign policy challenges, but the mantra remains HC.E.E.

On health care, we all know the story and we'll have a good, new law within the next few weeks that will be the first step to transforming our health care system. On energy, bills have been introduced in Congress and we'll have to see how that comes out, but the reality is that the bills are merely window dressing for a transformation of the energy sector that is already well underway. Don't forget that the United States Government, thanks to President Obama, is a majority shareholder in General Motors, which is investing millions in clean energy new cars. This, in turn, has Ford doing the same, and I imagine that Chrylser is not far behind. European car companies are getting on board and the Japanese and Koreans are way ahead. So, it's really not just about a new cap and trade law or carbon tax -- certainly those would help and I think we'll likely get something like that over the next year or so -- but, about a different way of thinking about energy and the environment and the government's role in bringing about the transformation. On education, the Obama administration has devoted an unprecedented sum of money in the hundreds of millions to transform the way we invest in, and evaluate public education. The nation's largest teachers union, just last week, announced that it's getting on board with the administration's approach to teacher evaluation which emphasizes both qualitative and quantitative performance management measures. That is huge.

There's lots of other positive stuff happening because of President Obama, but that's really not what I want to highlight. What I want to highlight is that what President Obama is doing is putting into practice what Dr. King was talking about. Moving our recalcitrant, frightened, and cynical society toward Beloved Community.

I know our "community" may not feel very beloved now, but I'd urge us, again, to take the long view and understand the vision. There will be many problems on the road ahead, and we will not agree with everything President Obama does or says. I certainly don't. Unlike Dr. King, President Obama lives in a different environment and has a different job. He is a different man. However, like Dr. King, President Obama is a serious, trustworthy man of good character and with a vision of where he wants to lead his community. He has incorporated Dr. King's teachings
into his worldview. This is what keeps me hopeful.

And so, today, let us turn our thoughts to Martin Luther King, Jr. and how we can honor him beyond this day by contributing to Beloved Community.

(Photo of Dr. King by Addison Scurlock of Scurlock Studios, Washington, D.C.)

17 January 2010

Pride, Part 1