Thursday, September 3, 2020

Lake Success in Dystopia Land

I was in the mood for a new “Great American Novel” and although Lake Success is now two years old, it filled the bill, at least in its intent.  If you define that “dream” as being just that, an apparition that exists only in the American psyche, mostly a rags-to-riches delusion, this novel is that.  And as NYC is its broad canvas, it personally resonates, particularly as one of our publishing offices was in the Metro Life Building at Madison Square, the vicinity in which the protagonist has his multi-million dollar condo, with his wife Seema, a gorgeous Indian-American, and their autistic son, three year old, Shiva.


Gary Shteyngart’s tale is a Bildungsroman of sorts, tracing Barry Cohen’s success and failure and redemption as a NYC hedge fund manager, having pushed the envelope a bit too far in his quest for the golden ring.  His marriage and his business are disintegrating and so Barry takes a physical and spiritual journey in the America of Trump’s rise to power.  Poor Barry, he impulsively flees his tower in la la land with the illusion that he can be reunited with his ex-girlfriend from college.  But traveling by Greyhound bus is not exactly the homey experience he might have fantasized about in It Happened One Night, where down to earth country people traveled and entertained each other with a sense of camaraderie.  Barry interacts with today’s travelers from the lower rung of a fractured society.  Perhaps he was thinking of a journey more along the lines of a Simon and Garfunkel song, They've all come to look for America, even imagining he could write the next On The Road.


His childhood dream was to lift himself out of Little Neck, LI and disassociate himself from being the son of a pool maintenance man, using his ability to think like a programmer of a Commodore computer to fill in responses when his peers questioned what he did over the weekend, such as having gone to the Lake Success mall.  Obviously, Barry is a genius, but much of it is of a savant nature, being able to think as a programmer, and that ability feeding his hedge fund success and his passion for collecting and knowing the nuances of the world’s most expensive watches.  In fact, his road trip is made with little cash but with a stash of watches in a rolleraboard.  He is a “Watch Idiot Savant.”


Still, it is on the bus trip, running away from his hedge fund world and Park Avenue life, with the perfect wife but with a damaged child to win back his college sweetheart, that he develops the thought of finding the son he thinks he’ll never have, even having fantasies of bringing a clever young inner city drug dealer, Javon, under his wing as a surrogate son.  It is a crossroads in the novel for Barry: So this was America.  A cruel place where a man could be thrown off the street because of the color of his skin, the cut of his watch.  It was disgraceful. He didn’t want any part of it.  Maybe it wasn’t too late to turn back.  He could picture it all.  His office.  Seema’s fine body, an endless stream of cacchiatos and uni rolls.  A Manhattan life for a Manhattan man.  He could rejoin the winner’s circle.  But he continues on. 


Ultimately, he latches on to the son (Jonah) of his ex-girlfriend, Layla, who reluctantly takes him in but none of his goals are realistic for a possible relationship.  Jonah is a different story.  He has his own obsession, cartography.  It is here that Barry can express his reverie for his own childhood and the significance of the place, Lake Success.  Jonah says: "I don't have any shared interests with my peers."  Barry laughed. … "I didn't either," he said. "You know what's right above Lake Success? Great Neck and Port Washington. One day when you're in high school you'll read a book called The Great Gatsby. There are these towns in the book called East Egg and West Egg, and that's them." …."That book The Great Gatsby is about a man who wanted to improve himself. And when I was your age I wanted to improve myself, too. So each day I'd practice my 'friend moves.' Like, what are ten things kids in school can ask me, and what are ten things I can say back? It's like drawing a map or knowing all the train systems in the world. Except instead of facts, you have to memorize what they call small talk. People who aren't smart like us, they love small talk. 'Did you hear about this?' 'Oh, what about that?' 'So-and-so got hurt in gym class.' 'That's cool.' So I worked my friend moves real hard, and then by the time I graduated from college, I was the friendliest guy in my profession. And it made me hundreds of millions of dollars."


His fascination with Fitzgerald (and his Alma Mater, Princeton) is highlighted in the names of his hedge funds, the first failed one being “This Side of Capital.”  Then another one , “Last Tycoon Capital” and ultimately, “Balance Wheel Capital,” ‘a reference to “the spinning part of a watch movement.”  In a sense, that is the conundrum of being Barry, a computer like mind who has a love of Hemingway and Fitzgerald.  Shteyngart’s writing sometimes becomes as lyrical as Fitzgerald and is frequently hilarious but melancholy dealing with the reality of what America has become.


The climax of the novel is his trip to Juarez, Mexico (ironically where I got a divorce more than 50 years ago) with Lalya and her friends where he becomes completely disoriented, nearly losing himself there to eternity, but after finding his way back Lalya kicks him out, back on the road, and ultimately to face the music of his financial shenanigans.


Meanwhile Seema’s story is juxtaposed to Barry’s, her affair with the downstairs neighbor, a Guatemalan writer, who defines his own work as being basically the same (“American colonialism, crimes against the indigenous, yada yada yada”), her devotion to Shiva, and having to invite her parents back into her life. 


Barry’s story runs parallel to his young son’s autism.  He is similarly affected by an inability to establish a normal human relationship.  Instead he has his watch fetish.  And there are parallels in the maturation of each reaching the novel’s redemptive Kumbaya conclusion.  All of this is told in a land of such division between the upper 1 percent and the rest of us, and in the dystopian land of Trump.  It is compulsive reading, at least for me at this sad moment in time.


Monday, August 24, 2020

Seeing into the Sick American Soul

Just once in a while, a piece of journalism surfaces which is so prescient, and so accurately reflects the kind of truth we all recognize but never see in its entirety, and such is Wade Davis’ “The Unraveling of America: how COVID-19 signals the end of the American era”, published in The Rolling Stone

Davis is a Canadian and it takes someone from the outside to see the forest through the trees.  My own essays written since theCOVID-19 took center stage touch upon many of Davis’ points, but I deal mostly with the detail and not the big, big picture, the decline of American exceptionalism and the probable permanent demise of America as a world leader, our slide into 3rd world status.

In a fairly recent essay I wrote “we have a full-blown culture war, not a new one, but intensified by [Trump’s] rhetoric and failures.  To what extent should individual rights transcend the need to follow measures to protect the greater good of society?  This is the essence of why other countries have had relative success after the initial battle [with COVID-19].”  However, I assign too much blame to Trump and not enough to us.  We brought this monster to life. It took decades of undermining our political system and values that brought this moment in time, which COVID-19 exposed in stark relief.

The American dream and what was supposed to facilitate its ability to be potentially achieved by all --individualism and capitalism -- have metastasized into a form of deadly social Darwinism in this country.  As Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd sings, “The history of the world, my sweet --Is who gets eaten, and who gets to eat!”  This is what a social net is supposed to eliminate.  We not only have no net, the alt-right is proud of it!

My wife, Ann, after reading the article said "oddly enough, it’s nothing that we didn’t already know. It’s just the surgical precision with which he exposes our ‘new norms’ that smacked me in the head.”  And it is indeed such a smack and major body blows of truth.

Here are some bullet points from the article which I hope will encourage the reader to go to the link for the full article:

*[What stands out] is the absolutely devastating impact that the pandemic has had on the reputation and international standing of the United States of America. In a dark season of pestilence, COVID has reduced to tatters the illusion of American exceptionalism. At the height of the crisis, with more than 2,000 dying each day, Americans found themselves members of a failed state, ruled by a dysfunctional and incompetent government largely responsible for death rates that added a tragic coda to America’s claim to supremacy in the world.

* In the wake of the war, with Europe and Japan in ashes, the United States with but 6 percent of the world’s population accounted for half of the global economy…. Such economic dominance birthed a vibrant middle class, a trade union movement that allowed a single breadwinner with limited education to own a home and a car, support a family, and send his kids to good schools. It was not by any means a perfect world but affluence allowed for a truce between capital and labor, a reciprocity of opportunity in a time of rapid growth and declining income inequality, marked by high tax rates for the wealthy, who were by no means the only beneficiaries of a golden age of American capitalism.

* More than any other country, the United States in the post-war era lionized the individual at the expense of community and family…. With slogans like “24/7” celebrating complete dedication to the workplace, men and women exhausted themselves in jobs that only reinforced their isolation from their families.

* At the root of this transformation and decline lies an ever-widening chasm between Americans who have and those who have little or nothing. Economic disparities exist in all nations, creating a tension that can be as disruptive as the inequities are unjust. In any number of settings, however, the negative forces tearing apart a society are mitigated or even muted if there are other elements that reinforce social solidarity — religious faith, the strength and comfort of family, the pride of tradition, fidelity to the land, a spirit of place.

*Though living in a nation that celebrates itself as the wealthiest in history, most Americans live on a high wire, with no safety net to brace a fall….COVID-19 didn’t lay America low; it simply revealed what had long been forsaken….[It] was reduced to a laughing stock as a buffoon of a president advocated the use of household disinfectants as a treatment for a disease that intellectually he could not begin to understand. As a number of countries moved expeditiously to contain the virus, the United States stumbled along in denial, as if willfully blind.

*Americans have not done themselves any favors. Their political process made possible the ascendancy to the highest office in the land a national disgrace, a demagogue as morally and ethically compromised as a person can be…. The American president lives to cultivate resentments, demonize his opponents, validate hatred. His main tool of governance is the lie…. Odious as he may be, Trump is less the cause of America’s decline than a product of its descent.

*The American cult of the individual denies not just community but the very idea of society. No one owes anything to anyone. All must be prepared to fight for everything: education, shelter, food, medical care. What every prosperous and successful democracy deems to be fundamental rights — universal health care, equal access to quality public education, a social safety net for the weak, elderly, and infirmed — America dismisses as socialist indulgences, as if so many signs of weakness.

* The measure of wealth in a civilized nation is not the currency accumulated by the lucky few, but rather the strength and resonance of social relations and the bonds of reciprocity that connect all people in common purpose.

* Evidence of such terminal decadence is the choice that so many Americans made in 2016 to prioritize their personal indignations, placing their own resentments above any concerns for the fate of the country and the world, as they rushed to elect a man whose only credential for the job was his willingness to give voice to their hatreds, validate their anger, and target their enemies, real or imagined. …But even should Trump be resoundingly defeated, it’s not at all clear that such a profoundly polarized nation will be able to find a way forward. For better or for worse, America has had its time.

While I’ve tried to distill the essence, the entire article merits a careful reading

My last blog entry expressed a sense of optimism after the Democratic National Convention.  I have to cling to that hope or my condition of Acute Existential Dread will reel out of control.  But, now, more than ever I am convinced that we need not only to throw Trump out of the White House, but regain Democratic control of the Senate as well.  It is the only hope for beginning the process of restoring American exceptionalism and rejoining civilized nations, such as Canada. It will take decades and commitment to repair.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Swimming Towards The Light

Looking over my last four years of writing I note the gathering dyspeptic tone.  If I had to draw a graph of it there would be a steady downward “tone” line with a sharp descending drop at the onset of the pandemic.  Before that point, there was still theatre, music, literature, and travel to think about, enjoy and write about, a distraction from the Anvil Chorus of Trumpian Transgressions.

This is not my first self-assessment.  A few weeks ago I wrote “We are all in survival mode now.  "This has all sorts of practical ramifications and seems to rob us of other activities.  For instance, my reading of fiction, for which there should be more time during this pandemic, is nearly impossible as existential dread has supplanted my patience. “

That “existential dread” was one of the reasons I couldn’t bear to watch the virtual Democratic National Convention these past few days.  I feared the Democrats would do something spectacularly dumb to jeopardize our one and only chance to remove a spectacularly amoral, non-presidential person from office who lost the popular vote by 3 million four years ago, but managed to inveigle his way into office via collusion and the outdated Electoral College.

As Tyler Elliot Bettilyon explains in Are You Suffering From Existential Dread? I obviously have AED (Acute Existential Dread), “an intense feeling of inconsequentiality triggered by external stimuli.” 

There is enough anxiety in our lives now, a deadly cocktail of environmental degradation, racial inequality, pandemic and healthcare hazards, main street economic woes, Internet facilitated conspiracy groups, militant supporters of a mostly unregulated 2nd amendment, and the decline of American participation in world cooperation, to indeed trigger AED.  When you add Trump’s vitriol to the equation, it is exponential.

Joe Biden had my vote a long time ago.  Anyone from the Democratic Party would have had my vote.  AED indeed blocked my watching most of the DNC, fearful that we might unintentionally alienate voters we need to show up in the swing states.  But, the last night of the convention, I felt it I wanted to see Biden’s acceptance speech, watching it as I would the 7th game of the World Series, bottom of the 9th, bases loaded for my team, one run down, and one out.  Any baseball fan now understands the depth of my AED.

First, I saw 13-year-old Brayden Harrington who met Biden on the campaign trail and talked to him about his stuttering.  Brayden, when you bravely took the virtual stage and said "He told me that we were members of the same club: We stutter,” my hopes were raised for Biden’s subsequent speech.

Biden's speech was the pinnacle of his political lifetime, and ours as we are all struggling, swimming in the muck towards the light.  My AED will never be gone until the swampster-in-chief, along with his criminal cronies, are gone, gone, gone.  But after Biden’s speech, particularly its tone of inclusiveness, there is hopefulness.  I really believe, for the first time in four years, that there is a chance to address the fundamental existential threats to our way of life and life itself.  Maybe indeed we can make America great again.

Unfortunately, we see how Trump is setting this up, undermining the Post Office and already questioning the legitimacy of the election, preparing to challenge the results, no matter what they are.  The more he can make this close and the longer the final tally can be delayed, the higher the probability he can throw the results into a chaotic challenge.  This will not be like the disputed Gore –Bush 2000 contest, where the Supreme Court made the decision and it was accepted by Gore (who really did win).  No, Trump might undermine this for weeks afterwards, trying to throw it into the House of Representatives where each state gets one vote (even through there are more Democratic Representatives, there are more states with a majority of Republican Representatives and therefore their one vote counts disproportionately).

I don’t know how they (the Republicans) always seem to have an unfair advantage, but it is even more reason why Democratic turnout MUST be massive and there can be no question of the results, although they will still be challenged by Trump.  We might all have to go to DC with pitchforks to remove him.  Ah, that’s my AED speaking again.


Monday, August 10, 2020

Pandemic “Blues”

In addition to its deadly physical health consequences, there is a certain kind of sadness which COVID19 transmits unlike other tragedies.  One never gets over 9/11 except that murderous shock, once absorbed, we frail human beings went through K├╝bler-Ross’ five stages of grief, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, arriving at some form of acceptance.  Not so with this virus as it a slow-motion tragedy, one of our own making, and now failing to manage, with no real end in sight, other than civil discord which just exacerbates the issue.  Thus we are stuck at the grief stage, almost like an LP record reaching the end and then skipping in a loop, skipping, skipping …skipping.


Nothing has prepared us emotionally for these times, its dangers and its disruption.  Although we can escape to streaming forms of the arts, for many of us it is difficult to bear for long periods of time.  It’s even hard to read and write as this stage of grief is a barrier to thinking.  I find my piano to be an escape at times but the programs I usually play were for other, better times, so increasingly I’ve been turning to uncharted territory, playing pieces I’ve rarely played before.  In the process, I’ve learned some about Broadway history outside my zone of familiarity.  These pieces are not the well-worn ones I’ve played throughout my life by Rodgers and Hart, or Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, George Gershwin, etc. 


I recorded a couple on YouTube but, now, with some unease as a few view the platform as a form of competition.  I don’t pretend to be a pianist of any consequence, other than playing for myself, those who have enjoyed my work in retirement homes, and a few fund-raising luncheons I’ve played at.  My work in the theatre has been as a lobby pianist on opening night where background music was desired, not a performance.


So, although I know what I’m posting for this particular entry is not at the level that everyone has come to expect with current streamed performances, and we’ve seen some remarkable ones, YouTube is the only platform I can use for playing on all devices. 


First on my “COVID19 discovery quest” is a little known, but Tony nominated 1974 musical Over Here.  It derives its title from a plot involving WW II but was happening “over here.”  It played for a year on Broadway and was still playing to full audiences when it shut down over a salary dispute between the stars, the two remaining members of the Andrews Sisters, and the producers.


The song writers were the enormously successful team of the Sherman Brothers (Robert and Richard) who, previously unknown to me, may be the most prolific songwriting team of all time as they wrote mostly movie musical scores and in particular, when they were under contract with Disney for all of their hit musicals.  Over Here was their lone Broadway hit, and it included a number of good, solid Broadway melodies and one in particular hit me during these times, its title almost defining our unreal era as well, "Where Did the Good Times Go?"  Indeed, where did they go and will they ever come back in my lifetime?


It’s considered the musical’s “big number” sung near the end of the second act.  It’s plaintive melody and lyrics are perfectly married…


What fun we had, then laughter turned sad.

Oh, Where Did The Good Times Go?

Our hopes and plans slipped right through our hands.

Oh, where, Where Did The Good Times Go?


Some place some-where, instead of despair is the love we used to know:

Why can’t we return?

Won’t we ever return?

Oh, Where Did The Good Times Go?


Those are the simple lyrics but with a poignant message for our times as well.



From there I move back in time (1959), to a much less successful musical, The Nervous Set, which was written by an unknown team, Jay Landesman and Theodore J. Flicker, with lyrics by Fran Landesman, who was a poet of the beat generation, with music by Tommy Wolf who Fran Landesman met when he was a pianist on a gig.  The musical closed after only 23 performances.


Landesman had a fascinating, unconventional life which the New York Times’ perfectly captured in her obituary when she died almost ten years ago. 


Wolf began to transcribe some of her poetry to music after they met, culminating in this musical about a publisher (Fran’s husband, Jay) and his wife who leave their Connecticut suburb to visit Greenwich Village during the peak of its beat popularity.  Although the best-known song is undoubtedly “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” which is a jazz standard, I turn to the lesser known "Ballad of the Sad Young Men." 


These are the partial lyrics…


Sing a song of sad young men, glasses full of rye

All the news is bad again, kiss your dreams goodbye

All the sad young men, sitting in the bars

Knowing neon nights, and missing all the stars

All the sad young men, drifting through the town

Drinking up the night, trying not to drown

All the sad young men, singing in the cold

Trying to forget, that they're growing old….


This song, which has also been adopted by the jazz circuit, became a mainstay of gay bars.  It is mournful, and what can be sadder than the current time we are living through – pandemically, politically, and racially?