VANGUARD

I’ve been listening to an oral history of the U.S. Supreme Court.  One section deals with Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis, two of the most distinguished justices in the Court’s history.  Holmes was known as “The Great Dissenter”.

It seems that during the early decades of the twentieth century, Holmes and Brandeis were voices crying in the wilderness.  Often they dissented together from the Court’s majority opinions.

Yet their perceptive views eventually became the law of the land, particularly in such matters as free speech.  The later Court considerably altered its positions.

In 1882, Henrik Ibsen wrote a play called An Enemy of the People.  The play’s protagonist, Dr. Stockmann, argues that truths are accepted only by the few.  Once they are accepted by most people in a society, they are no longer true.

This position is not quite accurate.  I would hold that truths remain as such.  Yet their relevance fades.  Those who advance emerging truths meet with considerable resistance while the majority recognizes only long-established ones.

Near the end of his life, Beethoven composed his Grosse Fugue for string quartet.  This piece, with its finely-wrought dissonances, seems more the work of a Stravinsky or Bartok than a composer of classical period.  Yet Beethoven wisely said, “This work is not for now.  It is for the future.”

Beethoven’s words indicate that there would be a future in which his work would be grasped.  The many people who cling to threadbare platitudes are able to be educated, and it is the duty of the vanguard to educate them.

As a civilization, we need to regain our forward momentum.

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HOTEL RITUALS

Over the centuries, hotels have gone by many names.  In ancient times, when people parked their horses at nearby stables, they were known as inns.  Inns probably weren’t the most attractive places, although travelers, no doubt, glad to have places to eat.

Then, in the 1800’s, came the large city hotels.  The personnel at such hotels tried to make guests as comfortable as possible.  Often the hotels featured fancy restaurants.  And to attract visitors, hotels also provided such accommodations as room service and bellboys.

But many people traveled far from the cities.  In the early 1900’s, farmers began to profit from designating certain acres as parking spaces.  These spaces became known as Auto Camps.  Travelers at the Auto Camps would either sleep in their cars or in tents attached to their cars.

By the 1920’s, a number of auto camps featured individual cabins, running water and showers.  People who still liked to rough it turned later to the trailers that became available in the 1930’s.

By the late 1930’s, cabins in the auto camps were lined in rows, and called motor courts.  After World War II, when the trend went to motorists parking outside a single long building featuring individual rooms, the motor court became the modern motel.

It was the motel that I grew up with.  The first one I stayed in was the Ardsley Acres Motel, located in Ardsley on the Hudson.  It was the first of many trips I took with my family to visit my maternal grandparents in Westchester County.  The motel was small, but so were most motels of that era.

Most motels were used by travelers who lacked either the space or inclination to stay with their relatives.  I also grew used to motels through business and, not often enough, vacations.

Early in the 90’s, I took the NY bar exam.  I stayed at a motel in Amherst, outside of Buffalo.  Taking the bar is not a particularly pleasant experience, and my motel stay wasn’t a happy time.  The one advantage I had during my few days there was that an Elvis film festival was being held on a local TV station.  So when I wasn’t at the university taking my exam, I was in my motel room watching Elvis movies.

Motels bragged of two features: they provided a space where motorists could park their cars right outside their rooms, and they were cheap.  Being cheap, they had few frills.  The motels at that time lacked porters, expensive restaurants or interesting lobbies.  What they did feature were color TVs and swimming pools.  When I wasn’t visiting with family, I spent a lot of time in swimming pools.

Those of us who grew up with motels became used to no-frills ways of travelling.  Once, in the 90’s, when I took a trip to New York with a friend, my friend had a fit when a porter took his bag, and started taking it up to his room.

Around that time, I began making regular trips to the city.  I stayed usually in the Edison, Pennsylvania or Herald Square.  It was around that time that I developed the habit of sitting on the bed, and turning on the TV as soon as I got into the room.

Over the past two decades, motels have grown considerably in size.  They are also multi-storied and centralized around their lobbies.  The lobby areas now feature such attractions as bar lounges, restaurants, gyms, indoor pools and internet cafes.  In essence, they have morphed back into hotels, albeit modern hotels with quite different features than the ones provided in my grandparents’ day.

In that time, I’ve stopped staying in Manhattan hotels.  Prices had become too prohibitive.  So my wife and I stay outside the city, and take the train in, an arrangement that makes for longer days.

I even stayed recently at the Ardsley Acres Motel, as I had business in Manhattan.  Ardsey Acres was little changed from the motel of my childhood.  At nine o’clock at night, I arrived at the motel office to check in, and the young woman behind the desk listened as I recounted how I had stayed there at the age of four.

When I go to a hotel or motel, I still turn on the flatscreen TV as soon as I enter my room.  It’s interesting to watch not only the worldwide networks but also the local stations.  I also still, when I have, time, take advantage of the pools.

Then there is the continental breakfast, a feature used by hotels to entice potential guests.  The continental breakfast is most often a bonus, as it saves money and offers a variety of breakfast foods.

It can, of course, be busy.  Often the hotels will host scholastic sports teams that are travelling on competition.  And I, in an attempt to make waffles, can find myself in line behind twenty soccer players.

But most hotel experiences are good ones.  Whether we’re away for pleasure or business, the hotel allows us the opportunity to finally relax.

 

 

 

 

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SPIDER-MAN UPSTATE

In Spider-Man: Homecoming, the newest addition to the wall climber’s adventures, some changes of minimal significance have been mad.  His boss Iron-Man moves his headquarters from the center of Manhattan to “upstate,” so that his new building looks like so many other corporate headquarters in Westchester.

No longer content with matronly aunts for Peter Parker, the filmmakers have switched to a sexy aunt played by Marisa Tomei.  Now the non-related male characters pay more attention to Peter’s aunt than they do to superheroes.

Much, of course, remains the same.  The new Spidey, played by Tom Holland, is as boyish as Toby Maguire or Andrew Garfield.  In this initial presentation, Peter is only a sophomore in high school, and obviously has much to learn.  His super powers are new, and he is still a geek doing well in school but shy around girls.

So many Hollywood films have too many writers following too many plot lines, and end up messes.  Marvel fares better in Spider-Man and most of its other features.

Interestingly enough, the web swinger is given two potential mentors.  One is Iron Man, played with usual brilliance by Robert Downey, Jr., who guides Spidey along the trials toward the mature and wise exercise of his super powers.

But the Spider lad’s other potential mentor is no less interesting.  He is, in fact, Spidey’s arch-nemesis Vulture, who is engaged in the business of illegally using and selling weapons made from alien materials.  As played by Michael Keaton, Vulture has a mixture of menace and almost paternal interest toward the young super hero that makes their relationship both complex and layered.

If these mentor-protégé relationships do not fully develop as expected in the film, so do many potential relationships fail to develop in real life.  Which leaves me on to the final subject: Spidey’s love life.  This does not turn out well, at least in the new film.  The girl Peter Parker likes presents special problems through her family.

But all is not perhaps lost.  There is one brainy, geeky, grungy girl, played by Disney star Zendaya, who seems to be modelled after Ally Sheedy’s character in Breakfast Club.  This marginal Brainiac, who seems to be genuinely interested in Peter despite all her insults, goes by the name of Michelle.  But in one scene, she says, “My friends call me M.J.”

This has caused considerable excitement and speculation among Marvel fans.  Is this quirky individual none other than Mary Jane, Spider-Man’s main love interest?  Perhaps the sequel will tell us.

With regard to the movie’s ending, Marvel fanatics have come to expect a short scene after the final credits have been given.  On this I say nothing.

 

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ON IMMIGRATION

I’d like to say to say just a few words on the hot button topic of immigration.  It seems that more than enough has already been said on this issue, but immigration is essential to the American experience.  And the current realities of immigration are different than how it’s presented on either side.

Prior to 9/11, immigration was handled by the U.S. Department of the Interior in conjunction with the Department of Justice.  Since 9/11 it’s been handled by Homeland Security, and as with so much else from Homeland Security, what we have is a broken bureaucracy.  Homeland Security can’t give us a coherent or effective security policy.  Nor can it process the many people applying for immigration status.

The people we call Illegal Immigrants are actually Undocumented Immigrants.  Many of them fill out the necessary applications when they come to this country.  But then the government takes away their initial status, and they wait in a limbo for the government to make further decisions.

Probably the most controversial people entering the U.S. now are Latinos and Moslems.  Latinos shouldn’t be so controversial.  They’ve been entering these territories since the times predating the U.S. government.  Many of our southern states were originally Spanish or Mexican provinces.  We need only to look at the Mexican vaqueros, our first cowboys, to realize how long Latinos have been a key presence in our country.

Moslems are probably more controversial.  We hear that many of them are terrorists, and that a Moslem can’t be president or serve on the Supreme Court because a person bound by Sharia law can’t follow the constitution.

All of this sounds eerily similar to things said of the three groups I was born into: the Irish, the Italians and Roman Catholics.  We hear that the Irish are rowdy drunks.  Many people still believe that most Italian-Americans are in the Mob.  And it’s been frequently said that a Catholic president would have direct phone loan in the White House in use for receiving directions from the Pope.

While I’ve heard these comments all my life, I paid far less attention to them as a child.  I grew up in the suburbs.  Many of my friends were Protestants of northern European extraction.  My two paternal grandparents were from Italy.  Three of my maternal great grandparents were born in Ireland.  But I considered myself fully American.

I didn’t know till later that my father, as a child divided people into two groups: the Italiani and the Americani, with himself among the Italiani.  This was because my father chose to speak English all the time, and the fully participate in American society.  His sister remained all her life in Oneida’s Italian-American community, but my father went outside Oneida to serve in the military, attend college and law school, and later become a prosecutor.

So the process repeats itself.  The nation is enriched by the diversity of its immigrants.  But the children and grandchildren of those immigrants will become full homogenized as Americans, and the nation will need new immigrants.

The U.S. must secure its borders.  Not with a wall by Mexico, yet secured nonetheless.

But let’s have a sense of humility.  A number a years ago, I took a trip to New York City with a friend.  Late on a Sunday night, we went to the Empire State Building.  After waiting in the lobby, we took an elevator to the lookout deck a hundred-plus floors up.

Looking out, I could see the rivers surrounding the island of Manhattan.  People from distant countries were there, and as I saw of New Jersey and Brooklyn, I could hear German, French, Italian and Chinese.

I was reminded of the ancient Tower of Babel, where many languages were also heard.  In the great cities of the past, cultures from distant places had also converged.  What we experience is not new.  We are having our time in sun as Babylon, Alexandria and Rome had theirs.

With protecting our security, we must always remember our place in history.  We must lealways keep in mind that our time here is short, and that whether or not we were born here, we are always, in some aspect, immigrants passing through a strange land.

Thank you.

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ISLANDS

The falcon women of my life

Were all born on islands:

My wife Oahu, in the hospital

Known for Pearl Harbor,

My mother the Long Island of Hurricanes,

One grandmother, the policeman’s daughter,

Staten Island,

The other Sicily,

Where Aetna rocked her childhood,

Two great grandmothers in Ireland,

Where one’s house was burned down.

 

And I, who have spent so much time

On continents, would be lost for following

The sea, but islands give me bearings.

 

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BERLIN 1989

Did you think history would cease

then?  Not noticing flooded wastelands

in the not distant landscape, you commandeered

new wreckage by pulling down

more walls.

 

Now like mammals after dinosaurs,

eyes of Socialist discussion peer out

from behind rocks.

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MAMET IS RIGHT, UP TO A POINT

A recent controversy arose when playwright David Mamet threatened to fine  Outvisable Theatre of Detroit in the event that talkbacks were held after performances of his play Oleanna.  Such a measure by Mamet was heavyhanded, as is so much that Mamet does.  It may also be self-defeating, in that such restrictions may dampen the enthusiasm of theatre companies interested in doing productions of Mamet’s work.

Nevertheless, talkbacks after theatre performances are a form of demagoguery.  They come from the institution of play readings.  Readings, which have been prevalent in recent decades, have had a mixed legacy.  They were instituted for the purported purpose of improving plays, but they have most often weakened them, helping to remove what was most original about them.  Contrary to making plays more producible, they have often had the effect of making them unworkable.

Usually it is not the most perceptive person in the audience who does the most talking.  Often it is the least perceptive.  This tends to shut down the critical responses of other people, which is particularly damaging in the theatre.

The theatre exists to make us think, and talkbacks actually have a chilling effect on the thinking that should follow a play’s performance.  For people tend to accept the opinion of the fool who did the most talking, or otherwise refrain from looking into the matter further.

In our current society, we are encouraged to voice our opinions immediately.  Little room is given for the listening, learning and reflection that should go into an opinion before it is expressed.

We would do better to institute the practice of the Greek philosopher Pythagoras, who had his students remain silent throughout their first year at his school.

 

 

 

 

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