Archive for the ‘BOOKS/ART/CULTURE’ Category

THE VIEW FROM NORWAY

Eighteen months ago, Donald Trump called for more immigrants from Norway (aka white people). Norwegians seem content to stay home. Derek B. Miller, a Massachusetts native and author who lives in Norway’s capital, Oslo, offers some perspective.

Miller wrote the best-selling novel Norwegian by Night. He provides a sharp take on the country of his birth in a follow-up, American by Day. It’s as didactic (unfortunately) as it is witty (very) but worth examining.

A female Norwegian police chief, Sigrid Ødegård, travels to northern New York State to search for her missing older brother. Speaking with a younger American policewoman, Sigrid declares that American culture is all about individualism. “The way you perform individualism is through self-reliance. But acting self-reliant usually means acting alone.” That, says Sigrid, weakens America as a community. “You worry that working together undermines your myth of self-reliance, so you hyperexaggerate its value to mask the fear.” America, Sigrid warns, is “basically doomed.”

Yesterday’s cowboy movies and today’s superhero films establish the rugged individual—often a rogue—as a prized figure in American culture. The Hollywood icon John Wayne played those types to the hilt and was himself deemed an American hero. (For the record, he was acting).

Many Americans in rural areas and their relatives in red-state urban and suburban areas sized from Waco to Houston (I lived in Texas long ago) still cling to the myth of the rugged individual and reject the role of broad community. This while the carpool has replaced the roundup, the gas grill the campfire. Yet Montana author Ivan Doig, in novels like Dancing at the Rascal Fair, shows how important community was in settling the West.

Still, the rugged individual remains the conservative ideal. The mountain man went off on his own to trap, hunt and scrounge off the land with little or no connection to the new towns growing around him and certainly not today’s shopping malls to which conservatives flock. Self-reliance—forget Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid—means everything. Failure warrants censure. Can’t find a job or one that pays a living wage? Can’t afford health insurance or medications? Can’t pay for college? Your fault. Me pay taxes—if I have a job—to help alleviate your problems? My right to say “Hell, no.”

Liberals often thrive in older urban environments, which historically drew large numbers of immigrants and retain many of their descendants. These Americans survived—and thrived—by organizing ethnic and religious communities, as well as supporting labor unions. Unlike many conservative communities (yes, they exist), these groups often formed coalitions with others unlike them but also looking to government, the broadest form of community, for solutions to difficult problems.

Individualism, Sigrid advises, is “why you all buy guns rather than build institutions. None of it makes you safer, but it does make you more American.”

Given the 40,000 annual gun deaths in the U.S. (2016, CNN) and a homicide rate seven times greater that Norway’s (2010-12, nationmaster.com,) plus many other grave problems, Derek Miller, through Sigrid, makes us think.

Perhaps Mr. Trump might have someone read the novel for him. Then he might understand why Norwegians no longer flock to our shores, and why instead we attract so many desperate people from other countries whose governments represent not the solution but the problem.

Big Truth: New and Collected Stories,is available at Amazon and bn.com in paper or e-book. Or, ask your favorite bookstore to order a copy. And, please leave a review on either or both sites.

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15 MINUTES OF FAME

In 1968, the artist Andy Warhol wrote, “In the future, everyone will be world famous for fifteen minutes.” Until last Sunday, I found myself fourteen minutes short. So I added a few seconds to my meager sum.

I held a launch party for Big Truth: New and Collected Stories. My guests gathered at Lokma Turkish restaurant in my neighborhood. They found parking! I enjoyed treating them to Turkish appetizers, selling some books and, most of all, reading two very short stories and the beginning of a third. Hear for yourself on YouTube.

Yes, I’d love to top Warhol’s 15 minutes. My book Solo Success: 100 Tips for Becoming a $100,00-a-Year Freelancer sold about 3,300 copies, and I was interviewed for radio and print. I relished the whole process, but as I stood in the national spotlight, it barely flickered.

In truth—a big truth—life owes us nothing. Most of us live in anonymity, although I’m delighted to say that I’ve had a very nice life. So when you have the chance to celebrate something special—something that means a lot to you—you jump on it.

I’ve never been taken with recurring calendar dates. They strike me as artificial. In this regard, I confess to not caring about my approaching birthday. It’s for family and friends to say, “Glad you were born.” The accomplishment belongs to my parents, Morris and Blanche. Another big truth: My mother did the heavy lifting. It’s doing something yourself that calls for a little back patting, even if you risk dislocating your shoulder.

I admit to being picky about celebrations. High school graduation? No biggie. A diploma was an expectation and never in doubt. College? The same, although I confess that my four years as an undergraduate were the worst in my life. The fault was not the school’s—Alfred University in western New York is wonderful—but my own. I had no idea why I was so often miserable and detached. Only later did I understand that I was a fairly extreme—if functional—introvert. It took decades for me to come to grips with, although not perfect, myself. I get by reasonably well now, but I avoid situations I know I’ll find uncomfortable.

Then there was graduation from the Army’s Infantry Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia in 1967. OCS was a challenge and thus something to celebrate. Getting my M.A. from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio? I worked for an ad agency days and went to school on the G.I. Bill nights—three courses per semester for two years. No free time. But Carolyn encouraged me. That was worth a little applause.

But I’ll always revel in bringing out a new book. Readers often have no idea about how much effort and psychic pain is involved along with the joy of creating a story. If I flog my books—and ask people to read them—you know why.

Now, I’ll back away from another date with celebrity until my newest novel, almost completed, comes out. I hope it will bring my minutes of fame—among family and friends at least—up to two or even three. I also hope you’ll celebrate yourachievements and the few minutes of fame they’ve earned you.

Big Truth: New and Collected Stories,is available at Amazon and bn.com in paper or e-book. Or, ask your favorite bookstore to order a copy.

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ROBERT MUELLER AND BIG TRUTH

What do the Mueller Report and David Perlstein’s latest book, Big Truth: New and Collected Stories, have in common? A great deal.

Mueller, looking into a possible Moscow-Donald Trump connection, searched for “big truth”—something that might shed light on what happened. Although he didn’t find a smoking gun, he discovered many “small truths” to which attention must be paid.

David, too, finds big truth elusive. So his new volume of 25 stories, substantially shorter than the Mueller Report, puts a spotlight on small truths—some reassuring, many painful.

As to Robert Mueller, he spoke last Wednesday when he announced his retirement from the Department of Justice. Mueller repeated what he wrote in his painstaking if heavily redacted report. Hearing it from his mouth amplified the message: Mueller’s team did not recommend an indictment against Trump because DOJ’s long-standing policy prohibits that. Likewise, if he could have cleared Trump of wrongdoing, he would have. But he could not.

Here, one of David’s small truths comes into play: Read between the lines (although the space between these is large enough for big truth to peak out). Mueller’s task was not to get Trump but to gather facts. This led him to indict many Russian military operatives along with Americans, including Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen.

Not-so-small truth: DOJ policy gave Trump a free get-out-of-jail card. Indicting a sitting president was off limits, so Mueller never considered doing so. Kind-of-obvious truth: If Trump is to be brought to justice for ties to Russia and/or obstructing Mueller’s investigation, that authority rests with Congress. More in a moment.

What about Attorney General William Barr? Mueller’s message conflicts with Barr’s, who stated that the special prosecutor informed him that the DOJ guideline had nothing to do with Mueller not charging Trump. That seems to be news to Mueller. Good-size truth: Barr has dissembled from day one.

A Russia hoax and witch hunt? On Thursday, Trump tweeted: “And now Russia has disappeared because I had nothing to do with Russia helping me to get elected.” So Russia did interfere in the election, according to Trump. Yet he’s denied that from the outset. Damn-close-to-big truth: the Mueller investigation, as Mueller reiterated, was legitimate and of great national concern.

Back to Congress. Many Democrats want to impeach. Democratic leadership is hesitant. For Senate Republicans, nothing short of Trump’s shooting someone on Fifth Avenue—Trump once bragged he could get away with that—would produce a guilty plea.

Small (humble) truths from David: Impeachment may be nearing. But why rush? Information gathered and aired by Congress can sway enough public opinion to make a broad case for impeachment even if conviction defies the odds. New York State made it easier for Congress to obtain Trump’s state tax returns. If financial ties with Russia are found, some Americans who voted for Trump may wake up and smell the coffee. Democrats who sat out the 2016 election and third-party voters may see how important it is to step up and vote for the Democratic candidate.

Life’s complicated, so Big Truth asks questions instead of providing answers. You’ll find funny stories and serious ones and maybe enough small truths to keep you going through the 2020 election. Get it at Amazon or other print and digital sources.

You’re invited to my party launching Big Truth: New and Collected Stories—Sunday, June 9, 3:30–5 pm at Lokma Turkish restaurant, 1801 Clement Street at 19th Avenue, San Francisco. Yes, you can buy a copy, which I’ll sign. RSVP with number in party: dhperl@yahoo.com.

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SHALOM, DOLLY!

Carolyn and I just saw the road revival of the 1964 musical Hello, Dolly! My life passed in front of my eyes.

Dolly Gallagher Levi is a matchmaker and hustling Jill-of-all-trades in 1885 New York. Widowed a decade, she sets her sights on Horace Vandergelder, a Yonkers widower and reputed half-a-millionaire. All the rest is commentary.

Except, who is Dolly? Originally Dolly Gallagher, she’s Irish. But she married a Jew, Ephraim Levi. (Ephraim was one of the biblical Joseph’s two sons, Levi Jacob’s third son and antecedent to Israel’s hereditary priests beginning with Aaron). The musical’s roots lie in Thornton Wilder’s play The Matchmaker. Making Dolly’s late, beloved husband a Jew seemed to have been a rather brave undertaking on Wilder’s part.

But, was Ephraim really Jewish? During a monologue by Dolly, we see the store Ephraim owned—a haberdashery—a men’s clothing store. In 1966, a Jewish-owned men’s store was the first thing I saw in Anniston, Alabama heading to Fort McClellan and advanced infantry training. And when Dolly is asked to name a great American, her reply: Moses!

In 2006, the Jewish actress Tovah Feldshuh decided not to play Dolly as Jewish because she herself was. The late Carol Channing, who originated the role, did play Dolly as Jewish “On the basis of my own early marriage right out of Bennington. I married into a Galician, Yiddish-speaking family.”

Which brings me to me. Actually, to my wife. Carolyn was raised in Waco as a Catholic but had many Jewish friends and a Jewish aunt, uncle and cousin. She was falling away from Catholicism when we met. No, she never converted. A justice of the peace married us. 

But over the last 50 years (this September marks our golden anniversary), she’s been a true helpmate to a Jewish man, raised three Jewish children, supported our synagogue and championed Israel, which we’ve visited together twice. I should add that she often enlightens her friends (many or most Jewish) on Jewish practices and Israel.

This may be due in part to my parents, Morris and Blanche, who welcomed Carolyn into the family sight unseen. Of course, my mother had to meet this girl after we called from San Antonio to say we were getting married. A sophisticated woman with perfect hair, makeup, nails, clothing and accessories, Blanche Perlstein flew down and brought gifts—among them a potato grater and jar of chicken fat.

It was love at first sight. My mother signed me over to Carolyn as Dolly Levi gave Horace Vandergelder no choice but to marry her. Carolyn has “guided” my life, clarifying what I really wanted to do about various things because how could I be expected to make decisions about the menu at our kids’ b’nai mitzvah or our 36th (double chai/2×18) recommitment ceremony at Congregation Sherith Israel, or the colors for the exterior of our house.

Doubtless, Ephraim Levi knew how lucky he was to marry Dolly Gallagher. I feel the same way about Carolyn. So does my entire family, who from the outset made Carolyn their own while relegating me to “Carolyn’s husband.”

Without Carolyn, I’d be nothing. So from now on, I’ll refer to Hello, Dolly! as Shalom, Dolly! because the moment I met Carolyn, I said hello to a better life.  

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LAURA AND DUKE—A HATE STORY

America generally accepted racism in 1871, even though the Civil War had ended six years earlier. A century later, bigotry stood officially condemned. Yet prejudice had its champions. Today, those champions have champions. 

On Laura Ingraham’s February 20 Fox News show, author/journalist Raymond Arroyo rebutted the furor resulting from the resurfacing of a 1971 Playboy interview with John Wayne. The Hollywood legend friends called Duke told Playboy, “I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility.” 

Arroyo claimed that Wayne shouldn’t be judged by today’s standards. Ingraham agreed and likened protestors to the Taliban and ISIS, who “don’t want any vestige of what was.” 

So, what “was” in 1971? Congress had passed the Civil Rights Act seven years earlier. Although millions of whites fought desegregation and equal rights, America officially took a new stance towards racial equality. It was inevitable. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled against the concept of separate but equal schools. In 1948, President Harry Truman desegregated the armed forces. Before and after that decision, thousands of black Americans died for our country. Theircountry. 

Educated and responsible citizens? In the ’60s, I viewed my fraternity brothers Paul and Bob, my officer candidate school buddies Kent and Cliff, and L.M., starting center on the Fort Sam Houston post basketball team I coached for two seasons, as more than well-educated to the point of responsibility. Exemplary African Americans? No. Exemplary men.

Duke Wayne’s comments become more reprehensible because he stood as a symbol of American manhood. The symbol was false. His real name? Marion Morrison—although that’s not an issue. Until about the time of Wayne’s comments, Hollywood required actors to adopt short, Anglo-Saxon sounding screen names. These often mollified moviegoers uncomfortable with seeing “foreigners” on the silver screen. (Blacks played maids and train porters, Asians maids and gardeners.) Tinseltown disguised Jewish stars like Paul Muni (Frederich Weisenfruend), Kirk Douglas (Issur Danielovitch), Lauren Bacall (Betty Perske) and Judy Holliday (Judith Tuvim).

Wayne’s heroism? Celluloid myth. He played courageous cowboys and World War Two servicemenas an actor. During the war, the military rejected him because of his age and status as a father. To Wayne’s credit, that dissatisfied him. He made USO tours and visited wounded veterans in hospitals—worthy endeavors but hardly on a par with those who endured combat.

In the post-war years Wayne, a conservative, vociferously supported the red-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee. HUAC blacklisted many Hollywood actors, writers, directors and others for liberal and/or communist sympathies during the Depression years. It destroyed careers, damaged lives. 

Laura Ingraham’s giving a pass to John Wayne’s racist views helps maintain an environment of hatred that over the past three years has crawled out from the shadows. Recently, an Alabama newspaper editor called on the Ku Kux Klan “to night ride again.” And federal agents in Maryland arrested a white-supremacist Coast Guard officer with a large arsenal of weapons. They accused him of plotting to kill Democratic members of Congress, television journalists and others. 

Should today’s racists be exonerated because their views reflect those of a supposedly cherished—and deeply flawed—past? Should their views be accepted because they match those espoused by a current self-proclaimed hero who also never served in the military? The Laura-Duke hate story deserves no love.

For a detailed look at Washington’s Hollywood purges, read Victor Navasky’s 1980 National Book Award winner, Naming Names.

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A SERIOUS RESOLUTION—KIND OF

I love to laugh. So I’m going to tell you one of my favorite jokes—in a moment. But you may not hear much humor from me in 2019.

Don’t get me wrong. Growing up in New York, exchanging banter was as natural as drinking mother’s milk. Although I was bottle fed. Scotch. When I outgrew my bottle, I learned to drink from a tippy cup. Vodka. But sometimes humorous comments get in the way. And as I grow older, I sometimes go to extremes. I reference the late George Carlin.

Carlin—also a New Yorker—offered, “Class clown becomes office schmuck.” I was never class clown, although I was chief comic among my friends. I was never office schmuck. But that slippery slope beckoned, and among friends, I often teetered on the brink. I’m pulling myself back. It’s so important to let other people speak and actively listen to what they say. Imagine if Donald Trump, the Oval Office schmuck, followed suit.

Not that I’m burrowing into a hole and clamming up. Although I did that recently. I experimented by spending one year of Torah Study rarely making comments. I wanted to learn more from our teacher and other students. Admittedly, I withheld observations that might have clarified our discussions. The Sages say not to do that. Apologies. When that year concluded, I dialed back my silence and shared thoughts I believed critical, particularly when discussions came close to veering off the rails. In that light, I’ll try to modify all my social interactions in 2019 to be less of a wiseass.

Not that I’ll stop laughing. Last week, Carolyn and I flew to Baton Rouge—a mirthless adventure that took over 30 hours thanks to electrical storms in Texas and Louisiana. Still, we had a wonderful visit with our son Seth, a grad student at Louisiana State University (LSU) in video game design. His degree combines art and technology, and he showed us some of what he’s doing. Fabulous.

Seth gave me a belated Chanukah gift, the book Old Jews Telling Jokes. It’s a compendium told by—yes—old Jews (60 and up) on the YouTube site of that name. Interestingly, Carolyn and I saw an off-Broadway version a few years ago. One of us laughed a lot.

Now for that joke I promised. (It’s not in the book). It was told, as I recall, by the late Myron Cohen. It involves ritual circumcision. If this seems too much for you, don’t read any further. But you won’t find in it the word penis or any of its Yiddish terms, like schlong or schwantz. Still reading? Good.

A mohel (MOY-al)—a ritual circumcizer—enters a luggage-maker’s shop. He says, “Fifty years I’ve been snipping baby boys, now I’ve retired.” He presents the luggage-maker with a large sack. “I saved every foreskin. Make me something to remember my life’s work.” The luggage-maker says, “Sure. Come back in a week.” The mohel comes back and receives a package in a plain brown paper. It fits in the palm of his hand. Wary, he unwraps it. “A wallet? Fifty years, and all I get is a wallet?” The luggage-maker grins. “Rub it. It’ll turn into a suitcase.”

Happy New Year!

The above commentary does not constitute a legal declaration—explicit or implicit—that the writer (aka David Perlstein) will refrain in whole or in part from telling jokes or making comments intended—but not guaranteed—to be humorous at any time and in any place of his (but not the listener’s) choosing during the year 2019 of the common era. Further, this statement does not constitute an agreement with his wife Carolyn that he will refrain from making adolescent comments typical of a man at the age of sixty-fourteen.

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HAUNTED BY HISTORY

Old newsreels and propaganda films of World War One can be difficult to relate to. Camera vibrations and slower frame speeds produce herky-jerky images in black and white. But Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies) has completed a documentary that brings the Great War to life. It’s haunting.

The trailer for They Shall Not Grow Old shows how Jackson digitally restored footage from Britain’s Imperial War Museum, adjusting the frame rate, colorizing many clips and transforming some into 3-D. (Read a fascinating overview in The New York Times.)

The documentary also provides voiceovers taken from BBC interviews with British vets in the ’60s and ’70s. Additionally, lip readers determined what some troops were saying, and actors with accurate regional accents dubbed scenes.

Obviously, uniforms and equipment are dated. The number of missing teeth, given the British love of sweets and war’s ravages, is astounding. But these soldiers no longer seem caricatures from an almost mythological past but our contemporaries. Note: Britain and its colonies lost 750,000 troops. The U.S. lost 53,000 after entering the war in 1917. Altogether, World War One took nine to 15 million lives.

Most Americans don’t come close to knowing these figures or the causes of a war that never should have been fought. We long have become a nation—even more so over the last two years—proudly ignorant of history and its impact on our present and future. The vengeful Treaty of Versailles (1919) sowed the seeds of World War Two.

In 1954, the U.S. became the dominant Western power in Indochina following France’s humiliating defeat at Dien Bien Phu. The Eisenhower administration knew little about Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, but Cold Warriors feared Communist Ho Chi Minh becoming a puppet of China. In reality, Vietnam had been hostile to its northern neighbor for 1,000 years. Some historians believe that Jack Kennedy would have withdrawn American advisors. I wouldn’t have bet on it.

Lyndon Johnson feared drawing conservatives’ wrath and sent more advisors until we staged the Gulf of Tonkin incident as an excuse to land major combat forces in the South. Richard Nixon, who won the presidency in 1968 after LBJ chose not to run for re-election, boasted of a “secret plan” to end the war. He waited until ’72—after re-election—to unveil it. Slaughter continued there, riots and societal breakdown here. Nixon’s secret? “Peace with honor.” Translation: Leave. We lost the war and 58,000 troops. South Vietnam fell.

George W. Bush and his handlers knew nothing about the Greater Middle East. Post-9/11, we went into Afghanistan to find Osama Bin Laden. Fine. Then we blew it. He escaped. We stayed. We’re still there. In 2003, we invaded Iraq to destroy weapons of mass destruction and create an American-style democracy. We found Saddam Hussein but no weapons. No matter. Mass destruction followed.

Ultimately, that led us into Syria. Now, we’re reversing course and leaving. I believe this move is premature—and dangerous. Secretary of Defense James Mattis does, too. He resigned yesterday.

They Shall Not Grow Old reminds us of George Santayana’s advice: “Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.” It offers sound advice to each new generation. What truly grows old is our ignoring it.

To those who celebrate these holidays, Merry Christmas and Happy Kwanzaa! To all, Happy New Year!

The blog will take some time off and return on Friday, January 4.

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LAUGHING UNTIL WE CRY

A recent comic strip in the San Francisco Chroniclerelated to a matter I discussed with a stand-up comic at last Sunday’s annual Comedy Day in Golden Gate Park. Our chat yielded an interesting but dark observation.

Wiley Miller’s “Non Sequitur” panel presents a man in blue overalls, white tee shirt and red baseball cap, which in front might have read Make America Great. He stands, pen in hand, before a large sign: Entrance Exam. Behind it is an angel at a velvet rope. Another—God? St. Peter?—sits at a tall desk and holds a quill pen.

The man must answer a single question to enter heaven: Nazis are (check one) good, bad. The man appears stumped. The seated angel/God/St. Peter asks, “Remember when this was the easiest test in the universe?”

Most readers get Miller’s take on Donald Trump’s comment following the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia over a year ago: There were “some very fine people on both sides.”

You may not laugh, but Miller’s humor bites. Satirizing the powerful, especially when they are inane, represents a necessary act of protest. Will Miller’s panel change the outcome of November’s midterm elections? Lead to Trump’s leaving the White House? Likely it will be forgotten—but, added to all the humor out there, could prove the straw that broke the camel’s back.

As to the discussion: Jill Maragos is a stand-up comic who performed at Comedy Day along with dozens of others. As always, I enjoyed her brief set. She’s a funny woman booking gigs around the country.

When I saw her backstage, Trump came up as a subject for stand-up. Jill doesn’t think he’s a good one. I see her point. Not that I couldn’t write material for myself: Have you noticed that Trump’s hair matches the pale yellow sofa in the Oval office? Did the White House order new fabric dyed to match the president’s hair? Or did Trump like the sofa’s color so much, he ordered his stylist to match it?

But including Trump in a stand-up routine performed over time can’t replicate the skewering by late-night TV hosts and Saturday Night Live. They enjoy the advantage of timeliness. A team of writers takes off on some Trumpism that hit the news that day or that week—something specific and fresh in people’s minds.

Generalized material doesn’t work so well. Jill supplied an appropriate (a word missing from Trump’s vocabulary and behavior) reason. Audiences have had enough of him. It’s not that they necessarily stop getting the news. It’s that the situation is so horrific, stand-ups have to pick their spots.

Satiric comic strips and editorial cartoons remain important. Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel and SNL also will keep firing away. Trump will express his displeasure. Buffoons and blowhards—one president can be both—hate being laid bare like the emperor in his new “clothes” portrayed in the Hans Christian Andersen story.

Trump’s low approval ratings indicate that more Americans view him not as the king he pretends to be but as the court jester. But unlike as in Shakespeare or Game of Thrones, the audience has discovered that within the ignoble body of this fool lies an ignoble heart. That observation may draw a wry smile but not likely a laugh.

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I BELIEVE IN AMERICA

The film begins with the screen black. A man’s voice declares, “I believe in America!” His Italian accent tells us he’s an immigrant. The camera then reveals him in closeup—mustache and suit as black as the background in which he seems suspended. A humble if successful undertaker, he pleads with someone we cannot see: His daughter has been dishonored. He seeks justice. But it will not be in the American way. Or will it?

The Godfather presents America as the land of opportunity. For many millions born on foreign shores and their first-generation American children, it has been just that. But the irony of the undertaker’s speech soon hits home. The Godfathermakes clear that in America, hard work and risk-taking offer great rewards. These values may be applied to a great many enterprises. Not all need be legal.

Those who saw opportunities by breaking the law are duly noted in downtown Las Vegas’s Mob Museum. I was there last week, since I did a small portion of the research for my next novel on their website. Moreover, I admit to a fascination with the Mob—particularly Jewish gangsters of the first half of the 20th century. They were legion. Money guys like Arnold Rothstein and Meyer Lansky? Sure. But many more were stone-cold killers like Ben “Bugsy” Siegel, Dutch Schultz, Abe “Kid Twist” Reles and Louis “Lepke” Buchalter. (FYI, Lansky and Siegel appear in the novel.)

The Mob Museum details the rise—and fall—of the Sicilian Mafia and its affiliates, including the Jewish gangs, which provided murder—and lots of it—for hire. (Protestant and Irish gangs terrorized New York and Boston before them). For many young immigrants lacking education and living in slum conditions, crime paid. Death often came early; success comes with a price.

Ultimately, the FBI squeezed and put away the classic Mob bosses. Vegas cleaned up its act. Other ethnic groups stepped in. Puerto Ricans, Colombians, Dominicans, Mexicans, Chinese, Russians and Vietnamese, as well as groups native to the Heartland, carved out their own American opportunities.

This nation will always face the Mob in some form. But ordinary criminals—even the drug cartels—will not destroy our democracy. We’ll rot at the hands of corporations and the super-rich. They buy politicians and virtually write our laws to eliminate regulations protecting ordinary citizens and reduce their taxes and liabilities, society be damned. In the process, they brush crumbs to the floor. Some people lap them up.

In the musical Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye the milkman advises, “It’s no shame to be poor, but it’s no great honor, either.” I support ambition. I succeeded financially because I risked working for myself and pushed to meet my goals—honestly and ethically.

I also support a sense of balance. The Christian Bible tells us that not money but theloveof it is the root of all evil (1 Timothy 6:10). The Mishnah offers wisdom through a Jewish lens: “Who is rich? He who appreciates what he has…” (Avot 4:1).

I believe in America. I also believe that keeping the pursuit of wealth from devouring ethics requires making wise choices. November will reveal whether greed outweighs goodness and lemming-like, this nation marches off a cliff.

For you who are celebrating Yom Kippur starting Tuesday night, may you have a meaningful holiday and be sealed for good in the New Year.

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THE SUITCASE

Retrieving the newspaper from my front steps last week—I’m a dinosaur—I saw a white suitcase on the sidewalk. My first reaction? As a native New Yorker and a Jew with family in Israel (I was last there in March/April), I’ll attest that the risk of confronting a bomb is real. But who would target my leafy street? I waited.

Several hours later, I went for a walk. The suitcase? Still there. I noticed it lacked one wheel. I concluded that someone—perhaps a homeless person; they wander the neighborhood—didn’t want to lug it any further. An hour later, the suitcase was gone. I felt relieved.

This wasn’t the first abandoned suitcase I’ve encountered. Several years ago, for example, I saw two—open and stuffed with clothing—in the Presidio National Park near my house. Who leaves packed suitcases in a park? My imagination produced a short story, Two Suitcases By the Side of the Road.

The protagonist, a retired executive, encounters two suitcases on a short hike in—yes—the Presidio. A widower who writes fiction to occupy his time—with little success—he imagines the person who left them: a woman he names Grace. He envisions his character fleeing marriage to a dull dentist in Marin County to live with a woman in Santa Barbara. Grace’s plight spurs him to examine his own figurative baggage—an early infidelity and a ruined friendship.

We all carry baggage—errors and indiscretions tucked into hard-shell cases securely locked. But refusing to acknowledge the deeds we regret can haunt us. The protagonist wonders if his imagined Grace can handle her own past transgressions and find happiness. He concludes the story with this observation:

“I’d like to say I know more about how things with Grace will turn out, but that’s asking too much. Particularly of Grace. We each look at our life—turn it over, dissect it—and arrive at a pretty good sense of where we’ve been and a decent idea of where we are. Where we’re going? That’s pushing it. We try to write the stories of our lives, but our lives write us.”

My baggage could fill an old-fashioned steamer trunk. Maybe two. I deal with it by periodically hunkering down in a quiet corner of my mind, unpacking my trunks and sifting through their contents. Repressing awkward matters that mar our past only nourishes them until they sprout so large they burst from their confinement and do additional damage. A little fresh air and sunlight keeps them from metastasizing.

On the other hand, I find objectionable the desire of people to spew endless streams of detailed confessionals. (This commentary represents a one-time general statement; I retain the option to return to it in the future.) The penchant—common here in California—to constantly air one’s blemishes to friends, family and the public constitutes a narcissism I find overwhelming and alienating.

So, I keep my balance while keeping my failings to myself. In doing this—and risking the ire of therapists everywhere—I leverage my mistakes as learning tools while keeping them at a sufficient distance to avoid plunging me into depression. That would result in life writing a chapter for me I won’t appreciate.

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