IN AMERICA…

In America there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is –that is what makes America what it is. –Gertrude Stein

Though popular historiography has stressed the ‘Age of the Robber Barons’ and deplored the gross materialism of the epoch (i.e., the closing decades of the 19th Century), this hostile view is not borne out by the facts, which display a panorama of general progress in which all classes shared and in which all intellectual and cultural interests were abudently displayed — a panorama, indeed, highlighted by the emergence of quintessentially American geniuses.

-Paul Johnson, A History of the American People

Gertrude Stein, probably viewing her homeland from Paris, Brit Paul Johnson viewing it from a nearly equal distance in England. Views of our homeland, over a century or more later keep tumbling and rearranging kaleidoscopically as our social and cultural realities advance or, perhaps, retrogress. Less open space, for sure, more or less materialistic, as ever. People pouring across the border; geniuses, variously engaged in the culture, still seemingly in good supply,quirky Gertrude Stein among them, now a memory. But again, an ex-patriate. We lost people, we gained millions more. We shift about, restless, angry, anxious. America, the Beautifully Open and Complex and Troubled.

Our future uncertain, as ever. God help us.

A “CLOSE” ENCOUNTER OF THE “STARTLING” KIND.

Don’t think you have to watch the whole grainy 16 mm pageant, but I’d like to share a fascinating black & white video fossil I found, to my astonishment, floating around Youtube. It’s from the most memorable, beautiful, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic– though, for me, ultimately complicated, even painful — summer of 1964 in the Great Lakes. I was 17.

I’m not in the video, for various reasons. But I see many familiar young lost faces, spawning a lot of memories. And at least one future-famous person can be seen singing about a brighter tomorrow. She is Glenn Close — you’ll find her about 27 minutes in. (NOTE: the video may start in the middle…just scroll it back to the start and the introduction by the daughter of Cecil B. DeMille. Glenn is the pretty, preppy natural blond next to the older, guitar-strumming blond with the more dramatically blond 60s hairdo.)

This is a full recording of a teenage musical called “Space is So Startling,” performed by attendees of The Conference for Tomorrow’s America, a youth leadership conference held on Mackinac Island, Michigan. (Tomorrow’s America is here, of course, and space is more “startling” than ever. Note the Webb Telescope pictures. But we weren’t destined to live in the perfect moral universe these idealistic teen colleagues of mine were trying to sing into existence 58 summer ago. Just think of the morally complex universe of “Fatal Attraction” etc. that awaited the future Glenn Close.)

Glenn Close was a shy, talented, dedicated WASPY teen from Greenwich, CT. at the time. Along with her parents, she was devoted to the worldwide Moral ReArmament movement, the sponsors of the conference. She and her family left the MRA movement, deciding it was a cult. She rarely speaks of that period of her life. About ten years ago, I managed to contact her father, who was conference physician and a beautiful man. We chatted about those times, briefly. He was writing books, and sent me all of them. He’s now deceased.

I broke away from the conference after two short months — being pressured into leadership roles of a program that seemed superficial and propagandistic, discouraged contrary or questioning attitudes and felt quasi-religous. I already had a religion. I was also falling into deep mourning over the loss of my father who died the day after I gave a speech on behalf of American youth in honor of the late JFK at the end of May. It was that speech that broght me to the attention of conference organizers. The pressure and the grief was crushing me. But there were very good people in the movement, including a pair of Gold Medal Olympic rowers, playwrights, performers. I had many fervid, slightly contentious chats with 19-year-old Catalina Quinn, daughter of Anthony Quinn. Her snarky, precocious 11-year-old sister, upon hearing my name, Greg Wayland, insisted on calling me, “Grey Wasteland.” Ha!

Glenn Close is seen here performing with the Green Glenn Singers. She was the Glenn; the Green was Kathi Green, the tall, ponytailed, daughter of West Side Story orchestrator Johnny Green.

I was, as I said, 17 that summer, headed into my senior year of high school in South Boston. The conference, combined with the death of my father, were life-altering events for me.

Stumbling on this video was, for me, like biting into a madeleine. Suddenly I’m Proust with vivid (if black and white) ghosts all around — and happy, colorful memories, too — being master of ceremonies of a showboat that traveled around to lakefront Michigan cities, and having African-American and Native-American roommates, meeting kids and interesting, multi-ethnic, accomplished adults from around the world, including Ghandi’s grandson. World-battered calebs and swells saw MRA as a lifeboat in their often morally dubious world. It was good in many ways. It morphed into the positive, idealistic traveling show, Up With People! — now also defunct.

Someday I’ll write a book about that summer. Ah..I think I just did. Sorry. Enjoy seeing Glenn and company. (I always hoped I’d get to talk to Glenn about that summer…closest I ever got was the 2004 Democratic Convention in Boston at which I was a reporter. She was there, but, alas, our paths never crossed. She is a brilliant actor — and miles and lightyears (speaking of space) from the Straits of Mackinac (pron. Mackinaw).

Here’s the link…posted on YouTube by somebody, I wonder who? Remember, ignore any ad, scroll to the start:

YOUTUB

SORROW COMES

Members of my family are gathered at this hour at a funeral home in Winthrop, Massachusetts where the wake for my 19-year-old grandnephew Thomas Bailey is in progress. He died from an apparent overdose of his anti-depression medicine in the early hours of Wednesday, July 13. I got the call from my brother Ron early the next morning.

I should be there. I want to be there. Florida is feeling like a prison at the moment, a place to which I should never have returned for yet another time. But I’m bound to feel that way at a time like this. Brother Bill is infirm and has been laid up for weeks now in a nursing home. His wife is laid up at Boston Medical Center. Brother Doug is in Denver and at 82, with the expense of air travel, could not possibly make it. I could not afford the air travel or even the road travel and lodging. My niece Kathy has flown up from Florida and my niece Mary Beth is driving up from New York.

Winthrop, that house in Winthrop, also my brother’s house, had always been the locus of family joy and celebration. Now comes this summer tragedy, like a hot, dry wind. Everything is change. And life is moving us all toward difficult places. Brother Bill confined in a nursing facility, no prospect for a homecoming; his wife confined in a Boston hospital.

Life can be like this. We’ve been blessed as a family. Sorrow comes.

It came at mid-summer.

This has been a personal moment.

SCIENCE?

Apparently fewer and fewer people trust science these days, or those dissertations on everything from gender studies to global warming.

Stories like this give us an idea why:

Comedian Steven Crowder was able to get a satirical article accepted in Fat Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Body Weight and Society titled “Embracing Fatness as Self-Care in the Era of Trump,” which argued that obesity was an effective method both of coping with the stress progressives felt after the 2016 election and of avoiding sexual assault. He was also invited to give a presentation on the fake study at an academic conference (which he did, to rave reviews, using a pseudonym and dressed as a woman).

ON 4 JULY, 2022 CAME ANOTHER DARK MYSTIC ON HIS MISSION

Everything was sunny and wonderful for a moment. Was red, white and blue wonderful. The children’s band had just marched by. Cute.

Innocence all around. Then, innocence was on the run.

The shaggy, tattooed young man, once (somewhere back there) also innocent, dressed now like a girl as part of his perverse mission, climbs up the alley fire escape, gets the high ground, start his killing.

He’d given the world fair warning. He’d written of his urges.

He wore the self-mutulating marks, inward and outward, of the army of the lost, soul-sick, violent egocentrics. The young nihilists. We’ve been spawning them, as in a fetid pool.

It’s one of the American stories — or American tragedies. But it’s universal. The symptoms and the actions can be found the world over. But, then, too, it seems we Americans have succumbed to this particular soul-corrupting pandemic, nurtured by the likes of our pibald, senescent ideologically bewildered prisoner -of-circumstances U.S. President who will, like millions, miss the point and blame it all on guns. Also, there are the false religions intersecting with the false chemical mood-alterers, racing around the cerebrum and the blood — they ought to be counted among the factors as well.

But the worst perpetrators are utterly clear in their thinking. That’s the scary part of it.

Mind-chilled and encrusted with a sickening sediment, they crawl forth in bright sunlight– at The Boston Marathon. They pop up in the high perch of a Las Vegas hotel. They enter a supermarket in Buffalo. They march freely into an elementary school in Evoldi, Texas. Your town is next — your street, your parade, your supermarket…..the demons are coming….

Their actions are theological in nature. The Evil One commands them. You might be scorned, mocked or ignored if you suggested such a thing and seem to be the Saturday Night Life comedian satirically uttering the word — Satan.

But, of course, it is a false, non-credible notion that any force, visible or invisible, forces us to do anything. We simply cooperate with evil. We make that choice daily, on a small or a grand scale. All of us.

There are the menally ill among us. They are to be cared for. We must search them out in all compassion. But I submit that the majority of the mass shooters have simply concluded that, in lieu of any ultimate, transcendant meaning, death and killling invest life with its only purpose or meaning.

Millions will, understandably, blame it all on guns. I find myself doing the same. Get rid of the guns or, at least, make it harder for them to get into the hands of twisted souls, and the problem will be abated, if not eliminated. And this is a reasonable civic goal to which we can aspire as a society. And, after all, what law or regulation or level of vigilance can discern and root out the galloping nihilism in the very air we breath? Is that possible? What is the antidote to the dark theology involved, especially if one doesn’t believe in theology, only sociology? We all believe different things about life’s purpose. We Americans are, in some respects, 300,000,000 theologians. And, frankly, even the most seemingly “normal” among us seems to have an appetite for the diversion that is violence, given our tastes in movies. We might not commit it, but we love to watch it. We just hate it when its real.

Meanwhile, for the killers among us…they think:

Kill them while they’re having fun or going about their business. Or at the movies, watching all that violence. Remind them with the rifle you bought of the real meaning of life. They are sleepwalking, those shoppers, those people watching the colorful, meaningless spectacle of a parade. “Enjoying” themselves.

This massacre left, among others, two young parents bloodied and dead, their child an orphan.

Motive, please….we can’t help but ask it.

Why? Why did you do it?

Why not? they’d answer.

Were they just — killing joy?

(Joy –allegedly, is said to be the surest sign of the presence of God. The French mystic Leon Bloy said so. He said many things, such as that the only failure in life is not to be a saint. He has never been canonized, or even beatified. He was, from all accounts, a rather intense individual who is also alleged to have stood on the hill of Monmartre overlooking Paris and proclaimed, “man left to man. That’s what I call The Wrath of God!”)

But here comes the mystic of darkness, climbing the alley fire escape to his perch, his little mountain, ready to unleash the wrath of his nihilistic god.

A relevant quote of dialogue from a story by a late writer of frankly theological fiction reads as follows:

If He done what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but thow (sic) away everything and follow him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing you to do (sic)but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best you can –by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness,” and his voice had become almost a snarl.

The words of the character, the homicidal escaped confict called, The Misfit.

-Flannery O’Connor, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.”

We are, none of us, as “good” as we think we are.

And we will ask — again and again — how did The Devil get a high powered rifle?

Not a bad question. But not the best question. And not the most important question.

Not as important as the question, why is there something, instead of nothing?

Or, why for some of us, is everything — nothing.

And, finally, yes, finally — who are we, and what are we doing here?

A PARIS FRAGMENT

June 17, 1966 I arrived in Paris. That was fifty-six years ago today. I was 19. I had traveled by train from Brussels to Paris’s Gare du Nord with a couple I’d met on the Norwegian freighter Black Hawk which had carried us and six other passengers across the Atlantic and docked that same day in Antwerp. It was approaching dusk when we arrived in Paris. It was my first and, so far, my only visit to the City of Light. My first recognizeable Parisian sighting was the famous Church of the Sacred Heart (Sacre Coeur) atop Monmartre as the train passed below it. Minutes later, we were under the cover of station’s rail siding. I bid my traveling companions farewell amid the bright, echoing turmoil of the terminal. I don’t recall where they were headed from there, but I knew it was time to part. The man’s name was Les Rabkin, 31-years-old. He and his wife Karen were headed on to immediate points elsewhere, unremembered by me. If they planned to stay in Paris, which, I suppose at that hour, was more than likely, I think I understood that I was excess baggage on their personal journey at that point and I think Les, when he vigorously grasped my hand for goodbye, welcomed my discrete acknowledgement of that reality, though it was probably obvious to them that I was overwhelmed, disoriented and, for the moment, afraid of my surroundings. But it was time for me to set out on my own.

It seems not that long ago — though, in fact, it might already be ten years ago — that I managed to locate and reconnect with Les. He was Jewish, living, I believe, in Seattle, his long-time home, though his prematurely gray-flecked beard and slightly brash manner made him seem less a creature of the Northwest than of the New York burroughs. I say that with affection. I do believe he was a New Yorker, though I may be misremembering.

Les had a long-standing relationship with an international agency that resettled Jews in Israel. That’s how I found him after plugging his name into the Internet. He and his gentile wife Karen, on that day in Paris, had a visa for travel through the Soviet Union. Their adventerous itinerary called for them ultimately to keep on traveling and wind up in Israel and spend several months in a Kibbutz until June 1967. It is for this reason that they were very much on my mind, once back in the States, when the Six Day War broke out in that very month and year. I long wondered about their fate. But I’d taken no contact information from Les and Karen at our parting, as became my subsequent habit with other people I met during that summer of Contental travel. I guess I assumed our train station goodbye was final.

All I really knew about Les and Karen’s marriage is that it was joined at a Manhattan party on the same night they met. They were, in that sense and others, two pure creatures of the epicurian spirit of the 1960s. And Les, jokingly but not without a degree of serious conviction, thought of himself as a “citizen of the world.”

Karen was not a great deal older than me. (I’ve written about Les and Karen in my “essential” post elswhere in this blog called, Continental Summer.) To both her and Les, I seemed a likeable but very conventional late teenager bound for a conventional life — wife, job, children, home in the suburbs. Perhaps it might have been better for me had that been my actual destiny. I suspect I became more of a wanderer than either Les or Karen. But I know both of them very soon wandered away from that impulsive marriage. Les told me that much when we reconnected.

When I found Les, I introduced myself to him and seemed to stir up vague memories of that voyage and subsquent land journey . He seemed delighted to hear from me. First and foremost, upon my inquiry, he told me they were, indeed, in Israel for the Six Day War but had weathered it without incident, though on one occasion, with planes overhead, Less worried whether they were Egyptian or Israeli, and he reported seeing many abandoned tanks in the desert. If I wondered about both their political pedigree of the time, Les shared the fact that their kibbutz was of a very unorthodox, liberal variety and had even assigned a place of honor to a portrait of “Uncle Joe” — meaning Josef Stalin. Small wonder they were eager for their visit to the Soviet Union, though I can’t imagine Karen was all that comforatable in Israel. I could not, during our too-brief exchange, really get a sense whether Les’s liberal politics had modified at all. But he was certainly, given his vocation, remained devoted to Israel and assuring its future.

We had only about three email exchanges, none of which I can locate. But I told him of my memory of sailing away from New York and seeing in the misty distance the famous Ambrose Light Ship that now sits dockside at South Seaport in Manhattan — and that, with my only son, born to me out of wedlock, I had, a few years before, eaten lunch together with the Light Ship just yards away from us. (I recall, with my son, feeling most unconventional and, looking out to sea, thinking of Karen’s assessment of my 19-year-old self.)

Les wrote back that he thought this was a very nice memory. He had re-married, at least once, was currently married to a woman young enough to have a mother still living whom he was going to visit. She might have been living in Florida.

I promised Les I’d go to a friends house and have her scan the pictures I’d taken of us aboard the Black Hawk– for old time’s sake. I think he was anxious to see them. But it happened that on the only day I arranged for the trip to that friends house, she informed me, with the pictures in hand, that the scanner wasn’t working that day. That was galling. I never got around to trying again.

Then, much time passed and there was no further contact with Les — my fault. He’d even mentioned he might get to Boston on other business some day (I was still living near my native Boston at that point) and that we might get together.

At some point a few years ago, I went looking for Less again — may have written, without getting a response. Then I learned that he had died. His picture, quite recognizable to me, was posted with an obituary and tributes from lifelong friends, of which I was not one. If his ex-wife Karen is still alive, I have no way to find her, her last name doubtless having changed, possibly many times. She’s probably long forgotten me.

So — remembering that first day in Paris, June 17, 1966 on this June 17, 2022. May you rest in peace, Les. I so much wish we’d had a chance to share more shipboard memories, share those pictures.

It’s 4:41 p.m. in Paris. Trains are pulling in and out of the Gare du Nord. Many greetings and departures. New memories for summer travelers in a complex and dangerous world far different from the post-WWII hour in which I said goodbye to two practical strangers with whom I’d spent nine tender days at sea.

The light, the days change. Sea changes, all changes….

It is 10:45 a.m….10:46 am….11 a.m…..

LITERARY TURNS

The literary movement of the (eighteen) nineties had, at the turn of the century, brought the American face to face with the age of science. As industry herded him from the farms where he was responsible to the weather and the earth into the cities where he took his orders from steam and electric power, wheels and cogs, even the average unthinking man was forced to some sort of revaluation of his basic concepts and values.

Robert Spiller, The Cycle of American Literature

To which I’d add…

The literary movement of the (nineteen) nineties, at the turn of the century, brough Americans face to face with, among many other things, terror — including terror over the placement of — pronouns.

BELIEF

And what, then, is belief? It is the demi-cadence which closes a musical phrase in the symphony of our intellectual life.

American philosoper Charles Sanders Peirce, from How to Make Our Ideas Clear

The word “God,” so “capitalised” (as we Americans say), is the definable proper name, signifying Ens necessarium*; in my belief, really creator of all three Universes of Experience.

*Necessary Being

Charles Sanders Peirce, A Neglected Argument for the Reality of God, 1908