View from the terrace of the family's Brooklyn Heights apartment

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Bells and Whistles

Too Much of a Good Thing?

At a supermarket parking lot recently, a man driving a spanking  new car said to me, "That's a nice truck." He was referring to my diminutive white pickup.
"It's ancient--18 years old, and they don't make them any more," I replied. "No bells or whistles. Even the windows have to operated  manually!"
"Take a look at this," he said, opening his car door and indicating a dashboard with lights, knobs, screens and other gismos that might have been appropriate in a jumbo jet. "I have to get the manual out all the time to see how to turn something on or off!"
Each one of those bells and whistles probably made sense individually, but all together they've produced problems for a lot of drivers. Similarly, many computer programs try to cover multiple situations and have become too complicated for many users to navigate. We tend to think that because something is "improved" it represents progress. When I ordered my desk computer I opted for a wireless keyboard and mouse, thinking them cool, but not realizing that a simple plug-in was a lot better than forever replacing batteries! The plethora of bells and whistles on some cars, I suspect, is a recent example of too much of a good thing.
When I was chair of the English department at a state university in Connecticut, we had no required courses except freshman comp, which was mandated by the administration. When we hired young faculty to develop new fields reflecting their specific interests, they convinced a majority of the department to make the new courses required. First was a course in women's lit, then one in African-American, next a study of Native American, and then Latino/Latina, and so on. Any one of these requirements was reasonable, but all of them together began to produce English majors who graduated without taking a course in literature earlier than the twentieth century and were not familiar with "dead white men" like Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, Pope, or Wordsworth. Of course it is true that the accomplishments of women and minority writers had been overlooked or ignored in the past, but our new requirements seemed to me to be too much of a good thing. This problem was eventually resolved by requiring any two of these specialty courses.
Often what is initially considered a wonderful innovation, in time develops a sinister underside. Television, promoted as an entertainment media, became for the most part an annoying advertisement media. Email is currently in the process of suffocating itself with relentless ads compounded by never-ending pleas for donations to political and humanitarian causes. The move from email to texting may give temporary relief, but ruining a good thing by overdoing it seems built into human nature. 
These problems may be trivial, but recently an added precaution to correct an imbalance caused by larger. fuel-saving engines appears to have been a key element in airplane disasters killing hundreds of people. When a device to prevent a jet from climbing into a stall was adopted, some pilots were not told how to disable it if it malfunctioned. The result has been catastrophic. Before adding a new wrinkle to a car, an airplane, or a computer program, it is imperative to consider the larger picture.


Wednesday, August 28, 2013

John's ratty old shirt

“I don’t understand men’s attitude toward clothes,” my colleague Marcia complained over coffee in the faculty lounge. “They have no imagination at all.”
“I’m no authority on male fashion, as you can see.” I’d always dressed down and was wearing jeans and a faded polo shirt as usual to teach my Wednesday seminar. “What’s the problem?”
“John. He had this ratty old shirt that was falling apart--literally. It was worn through at the elbows and collar and bleached beyond recognition. When I threw it out, he complained--and sulked. He’s still sulking!”
“He’s got two closets full of jackets, slacks. and half a dozen almost identical shirts he hardly ever wears. It turns out that I threw away his favorite shirt!”
“What does he usually wear?”
“An old lab coat in the office. An ancient pair of khaki pants. And that ratty shirt. You’d never know he’s a cardiologist!”
“And he buys his own clothes?”
“Well yes, in the neighborhood and sometimes online. But only once in a blue moon.”
“And what kind of clothes does he buy?”
“Mostly casual. From L.L. Bean, Ocean State Job Lot. Whatever strikes his fancy. Last year he actually bought two golf shirts, one online from Macy’s for fifty dollars, the other at the Job Lot for six! And he only wears the six dollar shirt!”
“I think I can explain this business about John’s old shirt.  After I buy clothes and wear them a couple of times, four out of five go to the upstairs closet, almost never to be worn.”
“But why?” 
“Lots of reasons. I decide I don’t like the cut or the fit. It’s not comfortable. It doesn’t feel right. It’s not--flattering, as you might say. Much of this may be in my head, but that’s the way I feel.”
“What kind of clothes are you comfortable in?”
“Good question. Pants with a bit of a peg, trim jeans and shorts, polo shirts with a breast pocket, sneakers, zippered jackets. sweatshirts without hoods. Could be a kind of nostalgia. I like the kind of clothes young people wore when I was a teenager.”
“Even if they’re unfashionable now?”
“If they feel right, I don’t care a fig about fashion. The problem is that what I like can be hard to come by. Now it’s all fat pants, droopy shorts, prison fits, tee-shirts with splashy displays. It’s the same with pop music, I guess. I gave up keeping track after the Rolling Stones.” Marcia had registered wide-eyed comprehension when I mentioned styles that were popular decades ago.
“Aha!” she said. “That explains it! That ratty shirt. I think it’s just like the one he was always wearing when we met in college. It might even have been the same shirt! Middle-aged men want to dress in what was the fashion when they were young!”
“And middle-aged women don’t?”
“They would not, could not even think of dressing the way they did in high school! They’d feel absurd!” Marcia was wearing a well-cut business suit, and I think I got her point. It’s middle-aged and older men, apparently, who are nostalgic about what they wear. And nostalgic about other things as well. I recalled a hit from the 60s or 70s. The chorus, which I sung off-key to Marcia, begins, “Those were the days, my friend, we thought they’s never end, we’d sing and dance forever and a day!”
“Nostalgia about your misspent youth I understand,” Marcia admitted, “but not John’s ridiculous attachment to his ratty old shirt!”

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Gotham Farewell

When doomsday dawned
the anxious video
informed us somnolent coffeepots
of our imminent composure
and alack
the gears, the wheels, the clocks
went to work as usual
ignoring the lampposts looting stores
while, tra la
upon the esplanade
a few unemployed trashcans
argued which would bow first
the Bridge or the Green Lady.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Jack & Jill


The moon will not beam without bringing a dream
Of my beautiful Jillulalee;
And the sun cannot set but with tears of regret
For my lovely Jillulalee.

For once up a mount Titanic
I roamed with my darling Jillee,
Till we came to an orbed ceramic
Me and the lovely Jillee.
That hill was somber and lonely
Haunted by ill angels only,

When in a voluminious spell,
She tumbled into the Stigantian well!
Its sad waters, sad and chilly
Used my Jillulali illy.

So the moon will not beam without bringing a dream
Of the beautiful Jillee,
Until the night-tide when I float at the side
Of my darling, my darling, my life, and my bride
In her sepulcher there on the hill,
In her tomb on the top of the hill!


Rub your head, dear Jack, and I will mine, 
and we will go forth,
Fetching nations and cities as we go!
Caressing men and mothers of men, not despising
redlipp’d barman, butcher, pimp, sagamore,
Up from the sudden preordain’d fall, now so
Though eons in the making,
Down through the valley seductively summoning,
Over the hay-fields into the sixth-month sunset
so lusciously beckoning,
We will set forth, adhesiveness thenceforth tumultuously
Allons, Camarado, hop to it!


At the first twisting of the spiral
The cicada sang his dry chant.
Is there water in the clear well
Nourishing multifoliate rose?
If there had been no water there,
There had been no turning,
Nor returning turned to Fall and Flood.
Save me Lord, but not now!
Chick chick chick chack
I Tiresias, though blind, saw it all foredoomed,
Enacted upon a broken Vesuvio,
Young Apollo’s cerebral crack,
Jill going down on her protuberant back,
Co co rico
Husband, I have immortal longings!

American Exceptionalism?

The all-too-frequently asserted insistence on American exceptionalism is questionable if it means that America is more virtuous, just, free, and open to opportunity than any other country ever has been. Such jingoism is possible only by cherry picking the past and ignoring our history of slavery, segregation, imperialistic wars, and the excesses of capitalism, which produced robber barons, a long parade of financial panics and disasters, unchecked corporate power, political corruption, and the outrages still perpetrated by Wall Street and Big Banks with impunity.. There is one aspect of America, however, that clearly deserves the highest commendation. 

The strength of American society is based not upon the competence of its wealthiest, but upon the ability and willing cooperation of its average citizens. A random selection of New Yorkers, say, including street people and the poor, could come together, elect leaders, and do what is necessary--rescue work, reconstruction, provisioning, whatever. That is the unrecognized genius of the American people. They do not need to follow the orders of an elite. Much more so than our military might or financial power or political wisdom, the practical ability of the ordinary citizen is something Americans can truly be proud of.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Mirror Man

The fellow in the mirror
seems absurdly self-conscious
spends half his time
adjusting his collar
checking the color of his teeth

He acts as if the rest of the world
has nothing to do 
but notice
his thinning hair
his second chin
the blemish on his cheek

This morning, tired, hungover
someone who’s seen better days 
he seemed particularly unhappy
and I had the feeling
that in his sullen stupid way
he was trying to tell me something.

Circle Five

Once while asleep I saw Raymond
(who sells textbooks)
in a pleasure palace
an Abyssinian maid
Round the crystal walls
were rows of astonishing paintings
(all of them signed Raymond)
When I woke to my Bay Ridge flat
and three botched canvases
I remembered nothing of the paintings
how much they’d made me hate Raymond! 

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Fair Taxes and Elections?

Just about everyone realizes that our tax system is unjust and corrupt. Unfortunately, little will be done about it because politicians of both parties rely upon huge contributions--some would call them bribes--from lobbyists representing Wall Street, large corporations, and other interests. It doesn’t seem likely, even with a progressive in the White House, that any the of the more outrageous loopholes might be eliminated or narrowed. Short of a national disaster, nothing substantial, it seems, can be done to make our tax structure rational or fair.

As the election of 2012 clearly demonstrated, our system of choosing political representatives has similarly become disgraceful and absurd.  Campaigns are much too long, involve increasingly astronomical amounts of money, and freely indulge in demagogy, pandering, outright distortions, and boldfaced lies. To run for high office  in the twenty-first century it seems all a candidate needs is extraordinary amounts of money with which to tell lies and attack opponents in televised ads. Although the chances of improving this situation are more remote than fixing the tax code, it may be worth while to consider alternatives. 

It would be wholesome for democracy if all campaigns were limited to two months before the election, plenty of time for candidates to spell out their principles and specific positions. Campaigns would be financed by the government with modest funds distributed equally among the candidates. An equal amount of free television time would be available to each bonafide candidate. No additional money would be available--no contributions, not even the candidates own funds. For each contest, there would be one televised debate. This would be a modified Oxford-style debate in which the moderator does little but keep time. In the presidential debate, for example, there would be two teams, composed of each party’s candidates for president and vice president. This form of debate allows candidates to introduce topics and positions and their opponents to challenge them in rebuttal. And in presidential elections the popular vote would be all that counts. 

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Conversation Overheard in an Anthology

Gainst Time’s obscenities
you will be wrinkled, wrung, wracked
my tight-lipped lovely
so why hold out so highly
gainst minor mine?

My mealy-mouthed
word-mongering fossil
stuff your antique threats
in a book and with winsome wit 
bemoan your unlucky plumber

In such a book
your clap-trap undulations
will upstart cocky scholars
draw oil from well-primed rocks
when you unrot are dust hapless

Ah, my punsome corpse pimp
why wrap obscurities in rhyme ribbon?
Forgo these sonnet coffins 
and tame that obstreperous plumber
to the tune of unlyric labials mine!