Archive for April, 2009

Letter From New York: April 23 2009 Pride Goeth Before the Fall

April 23, 2009

April 15th stands out in all American minds as the dreaded day when tax returns are due. However, the 15th of April is a notable day for other anniversaries and events. It is the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s death, of Leonardo DaVinci’s birth, and the sinking of Titanic.

The loss of Titanic has become legend, at the bottom is a true story – Titanic was a real ship, it carried real people, it struck an iceberg, it sank. The real story has become larger than itself, a story upon which much meaning is applied, inspiring books, films, a musical, catch phrases – “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic” and has become an allegory for heading blissfully, arrogantly, determinedly without caution into catastrophe, sailing without enough lifeboats for all. Wealth meant celebrity in 1912 and Titanic was chock-a-block with millionaires. Their presence aboard gave it a luster it has never lost. The richest man in the world, John Jacob Astor, was not saved by his fortune. Molly Brown, a Denver doyenne, created a legend that night and has been immortalized as The Unsinkable Molly Brown.

On board was a cross section of the western world at the time – the rich, the middle class and the poor who hoped for more. It was sailing from the old world to the new; it was the height of the technology of the time.

Like so many things in life that end badly there are a surfeit of “what ifs” and “if onlys”.

What if the men on watch had had binoculars? If only the watertight compartments had gone one deck higher, if the nearby ship, the Californian, hadn’t sent its radio operator to bed just before the SOS signals began to be sent, if the men on their deck had paid heed to the rockets flaring into the night. What if the ship had not tried to avoid the iceberg – a head on collision would have saved Titanic from sinking. What if the last iceberg warnings had actually reached the bridge? If only attention had been paid…to so many things.

It is a story of bravery and selflessness and selfishness and bad behavior. It was men and women first, though first class men had a better survival rate than women and children in steerage. When John Jacob Astor asked to join his young, pregnant wife in a lifeboat, he was turned down and stepped back like a gentleman. His body was recovered some days later. Ida Straus stayed with her husband, Isidore, who was a department store tycoon. J. Bruce Ismay, Chairman of the White Star Line, owner of Titanic, stepped into a lifeboat and a lifetime of shame.

Its loss has been the backdrop for many films, most notably TITANIC in 1997, a blockbuster of immense dimension. There seem to be an endless number of websites devoted to Titanic – it is a story that has burned itself into the Western collective consciousness as a story of meaning with lessons to be learned. Proud and confident in technology and the inevitability of progress, the ship sailed and each one of those things suffered as a result of its loss.

It is a story that will not be forgotten, nor should it be. It is a reflection of things that result when man thinks he is in control of events. Not so different from the flaws that propelled us recklessly into this economic mess – pride, feeling nothing could bring down the colossus, shoddy workmanship.

Yes, shoddy workmanship. It is likely that Titanic sank because the steel of its hull was made with too much slag and was brittle; its rivets were not good, not the best metal and not done by the best hands and so popped as the iceberg glanced the ship. The parallel to our economic crisis is that lack of attention to details are important things when push comes to shove – or iceberg meets metal.

Titanic’s story is a lesson, an allegory for what we do wrong – and the courage shown when things go badly.

Letter From New York Easter Sunday 2009

April 12, 2009

Letter From New York
April 12, 2009

Easter Sunday

It is Easter Weekend. I am at the cottage, and winter will not pull its icicle claws from us – it is unseasonably cold. A fire burns in my Franklin stove. There is a lament in the streets that spring will not really happen. We, here in the Hudson Valley, have been teased by spring yet it will not burst upon us. It is still winter cold.

Tonight, returning from a day of errands, the sunset was of the kind that inspired the Hudson school of painters. Grey clouds were bordered with magenta light and it was magical. Nature isn’t giving us warmth but it is giving us beauty.

It is Easter. It is Passover. These are profound holidays for those who live in the Judeo-Christian tradition. I find myself acknowledging them if no longer quite a part of them. It is now been a long time since I have been a practicing Catholic, which is my heritage. I gave that up a long time ago. I have flirted with a few other faith groups and have never been able to quite settle in comfortably with any of them. I appreciate the Episcopalian tradition; it is a religion that was born out of a need to justify divorce and murder. It should be forgiving. But even there I have never quite found a match.

That he lived – of that I have no doubt. That he changed the world – of that I have no doubt. Today much of the world will celebrate his Resurrection – his return from the dead after a horrific death. Out of this event came one of the greatest religious movements the world has ever seen. Christ died and was resurrected and this man god Jesus has become one of the central pillars of civilization.

Yet I wonder what Jesus would think of the way he has been used over the centuries. This was a man of peace. Granted he was testy with the moneychangers in the temple but he didn’t kill any of them. He was a man of peace and love from all the accounts of his life that have been written, from the sanctioned writings to the Apocryphal Gospels that didn’t make it into the “Bible.” This was a man who forgave and asked people to simply go and sin no more. Yet I am in the middle of a Holy Season and I am brutally aware of how much warfare has occurred due to individuals and nations claiming Jesus Christ as theirs. Empires were built on the concept of “Christianization.” Other wars were fought by other nations justified by their religion. Christianity and almost every other religion have been used to justify war, death, cruelty.

This is not what I think Jesus was expecting when he offered himself up to die on the cross. He was not a person who wanted earthly power and yet many of those who have followed him since then have been focused on having earthly power and used the controlling power of religion to attain it. While Europe was living its Dark Ages, Islam was preserving the best of our past. We would be missing much of Greek and Roman civilization were it not for the Muslims; they preserved and valued what the Christian West rejected – the thoughts of anyone who had come before them.

It seems most religions become seduced by the earthly power that can be derived from controlling souls. As we celebrate Easter and Passover the world is full of examples of religious fury and religious peace. In Italy earthquake survivors celebrate amidst the ruins, an Afghan woman, an official who supported women’s rights, was gunned down in the streets of her town, Pope Benedict XVI calls for world reconciliation, the Real IRA in Belfast is calling for the death of an official because he is working for peace.

“Father, forgive them; they know not what they do,” was said by Christ on the cross. I think now the words were for that moment and all the moments to come when his teachings would be bastardized.

Professionally young in Cloud Koo Koo Land March 31, 2009

April 5, 2009

A long time ago, in the primordial soup that was my youth, I played a character in THE BIRDS, authored by Aristophanes and translated from the original Greek by a classmate of mine, Jeff La Count, who had a mastery of ancient languages even in high school. He created a simple and wonderful adaptation of Aristophanes’ play.

The first line of the play, which I spoke as the character of Euelpides, was: here we are, ready and willing to go to the birds – and we can’t even find the way! He and his comrade, Pisthetairos, were looking for “the birds.” If they could find the mythical kingdom of the Birds all rules of life could be overturned. Ultimately finding The Birds, they created a place called Cloud-koo-koo-land, where all the normal rules were abrogated and new ones created, ultimately upending the reign of the Gods.

Interpreted in the 20th Century it could have been a Laurel and Hardy vehicle.

I am thinking of this because we are in the process of finding our way out of our own Cloud-koo-koo-land. Just as we the country responded to the horror of World War I with the party called the Roaring ‘20’s, we responded to 9/11 with the irrational exuberance of the last years. We took all the normal rules of finance and abrogated them with new ones that made no sense and ultimately that brought us down. Cloud-koo-koo-land can’t last forever…

This train of thought was reinforced standing in line for a newspaper while surrounded by the magazines that feed off our addiction to celebrity. There are such a staggering number that in many newsstands it is almost impossible to find a news magazine; they’ve been relegated to the back rows. One “Special Issue” magazine recently was a paean to celebrity beauty, a detailed scrutiny of the evolution of physical charms among male and female celebrities. More than one nose looked rather different between now and then. Standing there, looking at this catalog of physical charms, it crossed my mind that most of these people are practicing the art of being professionally young, a quality that has been ascribed to our nation, another aspect of the Cloud-koo-koo-land we have been inhabiting.

We are a country that has been playing perpetually youthful, as we have been moving into our middle age. Youth and youthfulness are attributes we have ascribed to ourselves; it has been our trademark since our founding. Young, brash, overcoming all odds, rising to the occasion, winning World Wars, first to the moon, leading the world in our productivity and our enthusiasm, populated by youthful, exuberant individuals who can defy age and time.

May be relentless youthfulness is not the best thing we have to offer anymore. Perhaps we gained some wisdom in our youth and can call upon that now as we work to take our place in this new, strange world in which we find ourselves – the world of The Great Recession, insurgencies, wars, travails and troubles.

Perhaps the thing to do now is to acknowledge we’re getting a bit longer in the tooth and that all the energy used to stay professionally young might better be spent in just being professional. We have had a grand party but perhaps now it’s time to do the Twelve Step meeting thing and figure out how to live in sobriety.