A Reluctant Astronaut

A Reluctant Astronaut

Howard Dean…Howard Dean. Oh, I know! Didn’t he play Andy Griffith’s kid in that Mayberry show way back when? You know, the one with the small-town sheriff, his bug-eyed deputy, and that harrowing barber who never moved his left arm? The show had a whistled theme song, and as you listened every week you’d watch scenes depicting small town life, the sheriff and his kid walking by some pine trees with fishing poles, then the kid skipping a rock across a country pond in a badly edited instance of “This Spoiled Hollywood Brat Can’t Even Skip his own Rock Across a Pond.”

No, wait. I’m thinking of Ron Howard, who went from Andy Griffith to Happy Days to Explosive Onset Pattern Baldness and thence to great success as a Hollywood Director. (Once you have the bald pate and shame-covering cause célèbre baseball cap, you’re just a hop and a skip away from those movie-set headphones and the director’s chair). Howard Dean was the 2004 presidential candidate whose disastrous, un-presidential troop-rallying yell at a political gathering utterly derailed his Presidential chances. What on Earth was he thinking, yelling like that on t.v.?! LOL. And I repeat: LOL! Dean’s poor showing in the Iowa caucuses that election season had inspired him to a post-Iowa attempt at inspiration-speak, and he let fly with a brief “forward march” monologue that concluded with a ragged little victory yell. It was the sort of pitiable yell someone’s dad might bark out in an attempt to appear simpatico with the young concertgoers surrounding he and his soon-to-be ostracized son in the DeadMau5 pit. Well. You know how voters can be. Or how they used to be, rather.

Your Footnote, Sir

By the next day, our blue-chip media, ever in pursuit of Cereal-Selling, were all over Dean with that drily-delivered smarm they hustle out on these occasions. Of course our highly conditioned B.F. Skinner electorate obediently walked its blank figure eight, right on command—followed the media’s signal as certain goldfish will follow a moving flame held near their entrapping little bowl. Within several days, Dean’s televised battle cry had been successfully blown up as a Disastrous Media Gaffe, and the “rinse and repeat” news cycle kept the phony controversy alive until Dean had been thoroughly drubbed out of the race.

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this shit’ll get you fired around here

We like our Presidential candidates to be…Presidential? Anything less and there’s gonna be a dogpile. And that is why the little-known name “Howard Dean” today comes with a footnote. Yeah, he…ran for President, I guess? Oh wait! But how’s about that funny yell, man? Oh gawd. The Dean Scream? LOL!!!

Fortunately, it takes quite a bit more to discomfit We the Weebles these days. We are a rough-and-tumble electorate now. A candidate happily hollering on t.v.? It’ll take more than that to give us pause. A helluva lot more. At this historical juncture it is unclear what exactly will give us pause. Back in January, then-candidate Trump said this: “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” And he said it in Iowa. We didn’t even tap the brakes.

Yeah, this most recent campaign season has been one for the ages, our current President Elect having comported himself like an elephant plowing at top speed through a carefully arranged display of Swarovski crystal. So we showed him the door. The door to the oval office. Take THAT Howard Dean. When in mid-January we look at any real-time orbital video of Earth, Real Estate Investor Donald Trump will be the most powerful human being on that large blue ball in the middle of the frame. Embrace the fact.

Chastened

At this writing, our newly anointed President-elect of the United States has emerged from the traditional pre-inauguration field trip to the White House, where he was shown around the nutty-looking mansion and (presumably) given the briefest glimpse of the bored and captive alien they keep in some sort of pen down near the Situation Room. Whatever Trump saw and heard during his private time with Obama, he seems to have been made thoughtful by the experience. And who wouldn’t be? Video of the President-Elect sitting uncomfortably in an armchair next to President Obama had the surreal gravitas of prisoner footage smuggled out of an undisclosed location.


If a candidate for the Second Cashier position at your local Home Depot had been overheard braying that adolescent shite, the jackass would have been quietly passed over for the kid with the retainer.


As a graying, relaxed-looking Obama said his stuff about his and Trump’s reportedly productive and “wide-ranging” private conversation, the unbroken squall of 60 press cameras in burst mode almost drowned out what the two guys were saying. And Trump wasn’t saying much. The seated mogul’s “I really gotta go to the bathroom” body language said a lot, though. The Donald’s manner was that of a chastened scaredy-cat; his long arms hung forward, his dimpled hands variously clasped and drooping, his squinting, sleepless-looking eyes casting about the room beseechingly with a mild vibe of “oh, shit”. Trump and his staff had reportedly been wowed by the scope of the administrative nightmare that is simply Running the White House, not to mention Obama’s Cliff Notes summary of Free World-Leading. There was a lot for Trump to take in. You could see it in his face.

Flaunting tradition, he’d flown to the transition meeting in his private jet, the better to flip the media the bird. The press traditionally accompanies the President-Elect on this jaunt to the transition thingy, chumming it up in-flight, laughing good-naturedly and providing lots of gladdened “behind the scenes” clips of our Fourth Estate appearing human and relaxed with a future President who, once he assumes office, will become their steak tartare, and the brightly shining object of their ratings-fueled henpecking. Well, Trump had been henpecked puh-lenty already, and took the millionaire opportunity to avail himself of his own private jet, thanks. He left the honestly bewildered media folk on the figurative tarmac, choking on expensive jet exhaust, blinking confusedly and fingering their lil’ press pass lanyards.

Sticks and Stones and Puppy Dog Tails

As for what got us to this pass – a lot was said this election cycle that I’m sure the candidates wish they could take back, if only to replace those earlier barbs with the crueler, more bitterly savage screaming they regret having holstered. Trump’s difficulty with extemporaneous speaking, though, meant that his wildly unmeasured broadsides often sounded like escaped brain flatus. From his early adoption and rabid championing of the birther bullsh*t to his flatly stated opinion that “…President Obama has been the most ignorant president in our history”, The Donald’s unmediated, majestically bar-lowering jibberjabber may finally have gone to ground. His stunned expression on transition day suggested as much.

As a nation, we wanted “change”. Why we don’t just dig it out of the sofa like all the other starved losers is anybody’s guess. And as usual, our inability to articulate beyond the Pavlovian election-year sloganeering came to no good. When the “change” mantra gets going we are known to lustily toss the baby, the bathwater, the tub, and the deed to the house right out the freaking window. Blue districts go all red, people seem to change stripes overnight, and our cheap, lazy desire to feign engagement undoes the brutally hard work of those few in D.C. who actually toil.

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Jesus, a camel, and a needle’s eye. This picture says a lot,brah.

Yeah, we received the election results with all the freewheeling drama you expect from a well-off First World citizenry. A woman on the Staten Island Ferry hollered shrilly at the news camera and shook her hair. “Hillary deserves to go to jail! I want to see Hillary in Jail!” Somewhere between her work for the Children’s Defense Fund and her having beaten Vince Foster to death with a shovel, Hillary lost this voter. At the other end of the spectrum, a scattered crowd of Hillary supporters, garishly lit by the news camera lamps, were seen tearily shuffling out of Hil’s election night Glass Ceiling HQ like the outcast damned. Which about fits.

Trump’s hot mic “locker room talk” about assaulting women those years ago may have been only that; talk. But if a candidate for the Second Cashier position at your local Home Depot had been overheard braying that adolescent shite, the jackass would have been quietly passed over for the kid with the retainer. And Hillary’s stirring final remarks to all the “little girls”, exhorting them basically to not feel bound to the current “Grabbing Crotches is Power” ennui—it brought home the fact that we want and need leaders who seem like us, but a little bigger.

November Surprise

Trump now just seems surprised. At everything. The nation’s urban outpouring of protest scorn seems to jar him, and the spike in cracker incidents in the wake of his election drew from a visibly shaken Trump the Rodney King-like “Stop it. Just stop it.” Why is he surprised? Because Trump is not a racist, misogynist bigot, is not a deeply tactical Machiavellian despot, rubbing his power-paws and chomping at the bit to assume the throne and eat his enemies.

reluctant

pre-presidential id

He is neither Hitler nor Mussolini. All this cracker activity genuinely surprises him because he is just your ostentatiously wealthy, boorish neighbor who speaks instead of thinks: ”I’m scared of Syrians! Where is Syria? I love to grab women! Oooh, I’m so mad I’m gonna punch ISIS! That Obama is crummy at being President, really crummy! Hillary, you are going to jail, baby!!” Anyone listening even cursorily to the Donald’s 4th grade-caliber pronouncements will know straightaway that he is just a 70 year-old crank in a vacuum with shitty handlers. Oh, and hair like an irradiated rooster. That’s all. He’s not a “nationalist”, “isolationist”, or even a “conservative”. He doesn’t know what those things mean. He’s just a blustering loudmouthed everyman who hated being told he couldn’t do this one thing, and now he’s trapped.

In the fab 60s Don Knotts vehicle The Reluctant Astronaut, an everyman ride-operator from a theme park gets launched in an actual space capsule. After a whole reel of Knott’s particular brand of glandular panic, he manages to commandeer the space capsule safely back to Earth by reverting to his theme park persona, and so losing himself in the astronaut fantasy he becomes a Momentary Astronaut. May the same thing happen to our Donald, who seems awestruck that the thing is really happening. Whether or not he ever wanted the job, we need him to succeed. “We do want to win this. We do want to win it,” he notably murmured with downcast eyes as he and Melania cast their show-votes on election night. He looked pretty darned glum, and later as frankly stunned as the rest of us. So we may have some common ground after all. Let us pray.

Growing Older in the Grace of Life’s Received Wisdom. Option Two: Skinny Jeans.

weep not for the crone in gigolo pants

I occupy a very particular demographic; balding 50-somethings who don’t know how awful they look in skinny jeans. We are many. It’s nearly an epidemic. A teary woman in the Macy’s parking lot shakily pointed her finger at me and used the word “plague”, which I thought was going a bit far. And for the record, I’m not truly oblivious. I have occasional fleeting doubts about the way my ass looks in these skinny jeans. I swat these misgivings away like the meaningless little gnats they are. I have a righteous ass and I’m working these jeans, baby! Zig-zag-zig! (snaps his fingers in that triumphant Z shape that the youngsters use). As you can see, I am firmly ensconced is this self-deluding demographic.

We aren’t hard to spot. We look like 17 year-olds who, in act two of a heart-squeezing two-billion-dollar Steven Spielberg parable, miraculously age 40 years in a seamless CGI moment, enlarging and sagging and swelling distastefully into youthful attire that is suddenly age-inappropriate and disturbing. Woo hoo! You’ve seen us walking casually about the downtown area, animatedly gabbing and gesturing, parting the pedestrian traffic as surely as would a mob of lipless zombies staggering up the main drag with their arms extended. People stare. Can we throw cold water onto a sunny Saturday? You betcha. Strutting around in our ill-fitting get-ups, we stir in the previously happy-go-lucky crowds an indefinable dread. Some lovely weekend morning you may be quietly reveling at a sidewalk café, sipping your expertly prepared cappuccino in full sun, that first dose of caffeine infusing your bloodstream with warmth and gladness – life is marvelous! Not so fast. Here I come in my skinny jeans. Tremblingly put that cup of coffee down, relax your smile and take a brow-furrowing hour to review your own life in the sudden shadow cast by my skinny jeans. “Things that remind you jarringly of your mortality” might be a good category with which to launch your internal conversation. You’re welcome, and happy Saturday!

We skinny jeans oldsters are not only about finger-snapping to Petula Clark and slowly lurching into the middle of the room to do that awful ballroom dance swirl whenever any music of any kind plays anywhere. Growing older does make one ruminative, which is an olden-times word for “looking at my iPhone.” Many are the occasions I’ve been sitting on public transportation, the other passengers’ eyes riveted by the rivets on my straining skinny jeans, wondering if and when they will structurally fail and come flying off my tormented pants in a stinging cloud of ballistic copper. As they glare in fear at my skinny jeans, I am daydreaming in my bus seat, staring into space, ruminating on my own reckless youth, my evolving narrative arc, and the manifold rewards of growing older. The bus will slowly negotiate a turn, and a bolt of beautiful unfiltered sunshine will slant in and bathe the heavily cross-hatched backs of my spotted hands, hands like chemically burned leather, and I’ll be moved to speak aloud in the sonorous voice of a poet.  “Starring Vincent Price as The Abominable Doctor Phibes.” As I stare at the backs of my withered hands, I know the other passengers are smiling warmly and exchanging glances of endearment, because they don’t know that Doctor Phibes was a hideous 1970s movie ghoul with a mouth in the side of his neck.

The phenomenon of otherwise dignified, life-informed older persons dressing like college freshman – it’s taking the world by storm! California may just be the epicenter of this shift in the tectonic plates of Graceful Aging. Sociologists have been brought into the picture, but their papers and journals and peer-reviewed jibber-jabber have failed to answer this fundamental question; what the hell am I thinking? Is it some sort of diabolical glass-curvature technology which, in the Tilly’s fitting room, causes a 50-something to stare approvingly at a reflected image made lithe by ocular science and profound self-deception? I can tell you from personal experience that simply walking into a Tilly’s fitting room at my age raises red flags, flags which are soon accompanied by signal flares as I loudly grunt and holler my way into apparel that no loving God should allow his creation to witness on a bag of ham such as myself. On exiting the fitting room it’s not uncommon to find a commotion that I’ve only recently realized has me at its center.  On one occasion I flung the fitting room door open with a flourish, feeling powerfully attractive in my skinny jeans, and saw a family of four turn and run with such blind alarm they plowed down two racks of halter tops and a clipboard-clutching little sales associate in their panicked rush to escape. When the terrorized family hit the street I was, unfortunately, hot on their heels, believing us to be fleeing a common enemy. When one of them turned and glimpsed me pounding along behind them – my middle-aged t-rex arms held daintily aloft as I ran, my Older Gentleman ostrich Legs prancing in their skinny jeans – well, the screams alerted me to the awful truth. So, yeah.

I could try aging gracefully, like Linda Evans, say. Or Liza Minelli. But what’d be the point? I don’t want people to look at me and say “My, he’s aging gracefully.” I’d rather they thought, “That previously dissolving older man has halted the very sands of the hourglass by squeezing into those blood-crushing skinny jeans.” I know what I’m doing, even if you don’t. Then there are times I begin to wonder if my Western obsession with youth is completely facile.  In those moments I dwell upon the National Geographic bronze-age Amazonian jungle tribes who venerate their shriveled, speechless elders as wise sages, as repositories of life experience, treat them almost as gods. Then the end of the program features the glorified village elder being helped along to the Next World on some sort of entrapping bamboo edifice, made to wear a bristly boar-hide diaper, fed a terrible broth with fingers floating in it, and finally slathered with ceremonial mud and pushed, uncomplaining, over a waterfall. I snap out of my reverie and renew my loud struggle with the skinny jeans until security begins banging on the fitting room door.

Not that it matters but…for the record, I am not past my procreative prime, pilgrim. My hydraulics are in perfect working order. I am a fit specimen and use the v-pill only cosmetically; when I need a tighter fit for my skinny jeans, or when I plan to be passing through a dangerous neighborhood and want would-be assailants to think I’m carrying. I must confess that one summer evening after too much Chablis I recklessly tested my theory in a particularly rough part of town, popping a pill and strutting like a graying panther through the mean streets, my “weapon” in full relief, like a blackjack tucked into my waistband. “You want some of this, punks? Come and get it!” There were no takers, naturally. Thank you Pfizer.

As for me, why do I wear the skinny jeans? What is the point? The point is this; I have no intention of retiring to Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. Not for me the daily cardigan, the fey-voiced conversations with choo-choo trains and hand puppets. That time will surely come, as it must for all of us. While I can, though, I will fight that encroaching shadow world with all my strength, and in trousers that cleave like a fully inflated blood pressure cuff. While I have my marbles I will wear the armor of youth, prowl the streets with the insouciance of the ageless and brave. You see, I want my outside to reflect exactly how I feel on the inside – like a quantity of finely ground hamburger poured into a mold.

So you wear your nutty kid clothes and backward hats and numbskull tattoos (is that what those skulls are called?) and I’ll adopt your skinny jeans. Deal? We get one crack at this soap opera. I’m not about to waste a minute wondering if my pants flatter me (they do, right?). As Sammy said, I Gotta Be Me! If I betray myself by not wearing these skinny jeans I’ll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of my life.  No regrets. Okay? Okay. Now take a page from my book as I’ve taken one from yours. Keep flying the flag, you dandified, acne-haunted lilliputs. Keep wearing whatever the hell you want, and so will we. You guys have the right idea. Time is fleeting. Do what you want. So….yeah! Here’s looking at you, kids.

 

SB Sentinel  Vol 4 issue 18 September 12 – 26  2015

 

 

 

How the Gipper Vanquished Communism, Punched Out Clark Kerr, Created Your Paralyzing Tuition, and Changed Higher Education from a Right to a Country Club

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Berkeley student Mario Savio found himself the de facto leader of a huge student campus Free Speech movement that attracted the ire of governor Reagan, who thought the student spoiled, ungrateful pinko beatniks. Reagan would fire UC President Clark Kerr for his leniency and then angrily raise fees on the students. The beginnings of today’s California tuition fubar.

In the buzzing, vibrant center of the beautiful UCSB campus sits a squat concrete box. This is Kerr Hall. Simultaneously cube-like and angular (not an easy combination to effect), the building looks like an enormous post-modern bunker, or an Iron Curtain edifice meant to make a statist comment. Which is fitting. To add to the atmosphere of gaiety, Kerr is windowless on three sides, its gray pebbled carapace textured with roof-to-ground vertical grooves, reportedly not molded in a cycle of prefabrication but deafeningly gouged out with jackhammers once the building was completed, in 1977. A demure little plaque at the bunker’s east end, gone tastefully green over the years, bears an innocuous inscription

“Clark Kerr – President of the University of California 1958 – 1967. For Encouraging a Better Quality of Teaching”.

What the hell does that mean? Who is this Clark Kerr guy? You wouldn’t know it from that bland little encomium, but Clark Kerr was UC Berkeley’s embattled first Chancellor, and not incidentally a prominent Free Speech piñata who the Commie-frightened Establishment would beat till the candy came out, to our common detriment. Clark was also Ronald Reagan’s springboard into politics in the go-go sixties. He would be invoked with contempt as a limp, liberal communist sympathizer in The Gipper’s galvanizing 1966 campaign speeches.

Kerr was, more lastingly, the architect of what came to be known as the California Master Plan for Higher Education, the nationally and globally venerated public education model that layered California’s institutions of higher learning – community colleges, the California State College System (today’s CSU), and the vaunted University of California system (the UC) – into a parfait of academic upward mobility. The Master Plan’s holy mission was to codify a promise from the State of California to her citizens: any student who aspired to an empowering education would have one, and practically free of charge; a compact that wove into the state’s cultural fabric a social and class mobility that was limited only by an individual’s desire to rise through learning. This didn’t sit well with everyone, particularly Reagan, a guy (like many during that period) to whom the word “State” summoned the Red Scare, Stalin, and Siberia’s chain of Best Western gulags. In 1966 Reagan would enlist the delighted assistance of the FBI and step lithely into the governor’s mansion on the mud-smeared back of Clark Kerr, and three weeks later Reagan would loudly fire Kerr as UC President. A couple years after that, in 1969, the Governor would formally begin California’s climb-down from investment in public higher education by placing more of the burden on the University students themselves, whose socialist ingratitude for the education they were receiving had gnawed at him since the days of Berkeley’s student protests and what he considered Kerr’s insufficiently iron-fisted response. Reagan’s convincing of the UC Regents to impose “education fees” on the UC students was comeuppance for Kerr’s Master Plan, and is considered by educational historians to be the introduction in California of a little something called Tuition. Heard of it? You can blame it on the commies.

In 1949 the United States was aflame with the Red Scare, which sounds like a rash and did indeed result in pustules and weeping sores, many of them holding public office. That year the UC had instituted a requirement that all employees, present and future, sign an Oath of allegiance foreswearing ideas and institutions seeking to overthrow the U.S. government, a thinly clad reference to Communism. Clark Kerr, since 1945 an Associate Professor of Industrial Relations at UC Berkeley, grudgingly signed the oath but would take it no further, and continually pushed back against the singling out of colleagues and staff on campus. Kerr’s pugnacity earned him the nervous respect of his colleagues in the academy, and it was Kerr the UC Regents chose to appoint as UC Berkeley’s first Chancellor in 1952. During his time as Berkeley’s head honcho Kerr proved a rock star steward of “Cal”, such that by 1957 UC Berkeley was ranked third in the nation behind Harvard and Yale. That year an impressed Board of Regents chose Clark Kerr to be president of the entire UC system. Just ahead lay UC Berkeley’s explosive Free Speech Movement, Ronald Reagan (and his girlfriend the FBI), and the meat grinder that would pulverize Kerr and make pâté of his Master Plan.

In late 1964 a bunch of Berkeley student activists set up some tables and information booths on the Berkeley campus. Most of these kids had just returned from Mississippi, where’d they’d spent an adventurous summer registering as many African-American voters as possible in a well-orchestrated effort that came to be called The Freedom Summer, or in the movies “Mississippi Burning”. The thousand-strong army of volunteers that poured into Mississippi that summer had braved beatings and harassment and arrest. Several of them had been murdered. Now the returned Berkeley student contingent, lives changed and eyes opened, wanted to talk about it. From their rickety card tables and benches and booths they disseminated info on campus and collected donations for civil rights causes.

UC Berkeley rules at the time prohibited any campus political activity outside the student Democratic and Republican clubs there, and the dean asked the students to please strike their tables and stand down. The bloodied Freedom Summer students would have none of it. There commenced over the coming weeks a swarming wave of sit-ins and angry marches, with a charismatic grad student named Mario Savio becoming the leader of the movement, one of the first American university protest conflagrations of the sixties. Kerr was caught squarely in the middle (to the delight of many), pissing off the Berkeley students for not acquiescing immediately and wholly to their demands, and enraging Edward Pauley, head of the UC Regents, for refusing to expel and otherwise punish the wild-haired socialist student rebels. Bewildered and poorly directed peace officers helplessly followed the “frightened mistakes” template, arresting and nervously clubbing kids who were, after all, only agitating for a Constitution they’d been bored by as jug-eared fifth graders just a few years before, but which had now become a precious thing which the Civil Rights struggle had burnished to a fine luster, and whose purity they felt exalted to be beaten up protecting, this tattered cousin of the Magna Carta. The bland wallpaper of ubiquitous freedom doesn’t become dear till it’s being torn down by often well-meaning morons.

Watching the goings-on at Berkeley were two birds of a feather; future CA governor Ronald Reagan and his bulldog on a long leash, J. Edgar Hoover, the dyspeptic and perennial pugilist-king of the FBI. Hundreds of thousands of pages pried from classified FBI files by the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) show that Reagan had been going to second base with the FBI since his film acting days the 1940s, routinely flipping Hoover and the boys the names of supposed Communist subversives in Hollywood, Ronny in one recorded instance dutifully reporting on an actress who’d had the temerity at a cocktail party to complain about the Hollywood witch hunts. The relationship with Hoover would prove fruitful.

In 1966 Reagan ran for governor of the Golden State, and wasted no time colluding with the FBI to smear both the Berkeley student leaders and UC President Clark Kerr, with whom both Ronny and Edgar were furious for not cracking down on the seditious, unshowered hippies. The Berkeley students would soon enough fold an anti-Vietnam War theme into their riotous campus protests and enrage Reagan and Hoover even more. FOIA documents describe in detail the nighttime break-ins and personnel file fingering of the FBI in Berkeley neighborhoods during this period, much of which largesse showed up as fodder for Reagan’s gubernatorial campaign. In his public rhetoric Reagan vowed to send “the welfare bums back to work,” and “to clean up the mess at Berkeley.”

The student unrest at Berkeley, and the public disaffection he managed to whip into a politically helpful shit storm, got Reagan elected governor in a landslide. Once in office he went unabashedly after Berkeley, slashing the school’s budget, and, when they complained, recommending Berkeley raise money by selling their library’s rare book collections. Ray Colvig, the Chief Public Information officer for UC Berkeley during the period of Reagan’s rages, has said, “He thought if you wanted a world-class university, let the students pay for it. The idea of selling rare books went along with that.” Three weeks after his election, in the new governor’s first meeting with the UC Regents, he fired Clark Kerr.

Today there are four Kerr Halls in the University of California system; one at UC Davis, one at UC Santa Cruz, this grooved bunker at UC Santa Barbara, and most tellingly, one at UC Berkeley. Why? Providing the disenfranchised the means, not the capital, mind you, but the means, to move freely about the class system is not everyone’s cup of tea, mission statements and impassioned dais-thumping to the contrary. The metastatic growth of tuition as the defining feature of higher ed is the proof in that pudding. But it was Clark Kerr’s cup of tea. What Kerr had attempted to make an Individual Right is now an increasingly exclusive clubhouse. And Kerr? He seemed to accept his fate with good humor. When Reagan fired him, Kerr did indeed refer to himself as ‘fired’. “I leave his institution as I found it; fired with enthusiasm”. Kerr laid the foundations for a common beneficence through education and got bitch-slapped for it. And in that light the gray concrete box that is Kerr Hall doesn’t look half bad after all. It may even be the sweetest spot on campus. If you think of it, stop by and leave Clark a flower.

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A Serpent

A Serpent

I hope and trust
there is an alternate Earth somewhere
that didn’t stumble onto the microchip
or vacuum tube, or whatever;
the precursor that gave us this dumb sadness
60 passwords to do laundry
and buy gum
or type out a thought
and hand-held windows
to nowhere
through which we gaze unblinking
in a flatline trance
of phony, whistling,
race-killing largesse.

David Foster Wallace, Peanuts and a Prize

David Foster Wallace world copyright Giovanni Giovannetti/effigie

An idea-free young typist in Axl Rose bandana is holding our collective critical faculty at gunpoint. In a bank vault. And he’s talking a mile a minute!

Post-Literacy’s Poster Child; the Bard of Save-On; The Lilliputian Confucian. Yeah, it is unreasonably cruel to pick on a dead pharma-guy, unless until it can be shown that his critical and commercial beatification flows from that sorry and admittedly tragic aspect.

I’ll confirm the basis of your already delicious contempt by stating outright that this essay will follow Steve Martin’s dictate to ‘criticize things you don’t know about’. I’ve never deeply ‘read’ David Foster Wallace, the thrice-named statue covered in the shit of our most mindful birds. I read a bit of ‘Broom of the System’ and waded with arms and legs bound into the speed-freak printout ‘Infinite Jest’; a conundrum wrapped in a dumpling, buried in absolute flapdoodle. It was immediately clear in both cases that the guy was a blinking neon fraud.

But I’ve been stunned over the years since his terribly sad but, it must be said, stagey demise, to see his Gas Giant of a star continue to rise, his crummy ideas and jarring sentences taken out periodically and waved about like the Queen’s silverware, his published lines and phrases and dimwit neologisms taken up by our normally discerning literati and declared ‘brilliant’ and life-affirming, his boosters (seemingly everyone) falling into line and throwing even more tender kindling on the rank and uncontrolled flaming shit pyre of praise. It boggles. dfw states the sophomorically obvious in a reverently mumbled, broken Freshman English. His revelations both include and are limited to: We’re each alone and struggling not to be. This is a consumer society. We’re very busy. Buying groceries is a strange ritual. We’re isolated from each other. We’re each alone and struggling not to be; and so on.  He says Postmodern a lot and once said ‘glabrous’. His whispered epiphanies are the sort that were thoroughly worked over long before Mark Twain had a mustache, yet dfw earnestly and unknowingly disinters the obvious with great declamatory aplomb and then illuminates his own late-blooming scholarship by elaborately flogging stuff most of us stopped mulling in high school. His jaw-dropping flunkie word processing is the foul icing. Like the guy at the bus stop who stares down at his shoes while yelling at you, dfw is not a gifted eccentric but wishes he were. His enablers lavishly convinced him of his ‘unshaven avatar’ status, and then he killed himself. It’s a very very painful situation.

This is just my opinion, but I’m right. Below I’ve included several rage-fueling examples of a doomed dimwit on Nardil who could not stop typing. Let’s start with this satiny sentence that takes John Updike’s novel Toward the End of Time to task. But for the dated Axl Rose headgear and cultivated air of superior resignation, this may have been scribbled by a caffeinated 8th grader trying not-hard-enough to impress the cute new English teacher:

“It is, of the total 25 Updike books I’ve read, far and away the worst, a novel so mind-bendingly clunky and self-indulgent that it’s hard to believe the author let it be published in this kind of shape.”

Nuf sed? Good. Why would any author worth dfw’s now-celebrated regard even think of publishing a book in that kind of shape? One is right to ask. We take a well-advised step back, though, on being assured by dfw that he has read 25 Updike books. whew. Seriously? whew again. To be called clunky and self-indulgent by dfw is like being told by Hitler you have a stupid little mustache. It rises to the level of irony and then continues noisily on through the ceiling. dfw’s entire oeuvre is a pill-driven edifice of wildly clunky self-indulgence, and the sort of brand-x writing that, if English were a corpse (and thanks to culture-choking algal blooms like Wallace, soon enough will be), would be clawing her way out of the crypt and roaming the moors with an aluminum baseball bat.

*sigh!*

And now I’ll allow this onanistic Chance the Gardener to regale us with more knee-weakening kryptonite. He really is something, you know. Ask anyone.

**

What the really great artists do is they’re entirely themselves.

Lane Dean summoned all his will and bore down and did three returns in a row, and began imagining various high places to jump off of. – The Pale King; dfw’s thankfully incomplete final slap at literature.

I’d like to be the sort of person who can enjoy things at the time, instead of having to go back in my head and enjoy them.

True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care—with no one there to see or cheer.

The interesting thing is why we’re so desperate for this anesthetic against loneliness.

Are we not all of us fanatics? I say only what you of the U.S.A. pretend you do not know. Attachments are of great seriousness.

We’re all lonely for something we don’t know we’re lonely for. How else to explain the curious feeling that goes around feeling like missing somebody we’ve never even met?

Whatever you get paid attention for is never what you think is most important about yourself.

I do things like get in a taxi and say, “The library, and step on it.” My instincts concerning syntax and mechanics are better than your own, I can tell, with all due respect.

In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness.

The cruel thing with depression is that it’s such a self-centered illness – Dostoevsky shows that pretty good in his “Notes from Underground”. The depression is painful, you’re sapped/consumed by yourself; the worse the depression, the more you just think about yourself and the stranger and repellent you appear to others.

The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction.

Gifted salesmen explain how people are always most vulnerable, hence frightened, hence persuadable, when they are approached solo.

…a song of tough love for a generation whose eyes have moved fish-like to the side of its head, forward vision usurped by the numb need to survive the now, side-placed eyes scanning for any garde of which to be avant.

A toxic sampling. This is bold, exquisite junk, and highly praised. dfw wins this round. Somebody tell his estate. Sorry, John. This shit is killing me, too.

St. Johnny II

Duckface Empire

Duckface Empire

 

Dear diary: I’ve been reborn. J3ff’s the name, yo. With a backward 3. Well, the 3 is forwards, but looks a little like an ‘e’. Yo. I mean to infiltrate the Youth Culture and see what makes it tick. I’m a man of a certain age but have sufficient verve and vigor that I believe I can pass myself off as a hipster, as they call themselves nowadays. Turn the collar up on my Izod, tear the sleeves off, dog collar around my neck; like that. J3ff. Double-agent. Chameleon. Will report on progress from Inside.

Day 1: Went to first rave tonight. Pretty wild. 8,000 maddened children, 6 stages, 5 hours of noise and not one note of music. A couple of the acts were an underfed little cave fish named Shrillex, who really lived up to his stage name, and another emaciated man-child named DeadMouseHead. Kid had on a giant mouse head! Started laughing my ass off and couldn’t stop. Had my hand to my mouth like some high school girl. I mean, I couldn’t breathe for laughing. Thought I was gonna give up the game the first night. My mascara ran till I looked like Tammy Faye, or Alice Cooper. No one noticed. The place was pure bedlam, kids were in orbit, waving their arms like hydras and swaying in the crazy lights, eyes closed. Like…. a trance I guess. Speaker towers throwing out these 1000 decibel beats, my guts jumping like shocked jelly. Meanwhile the guys onstage, the ‘talent’, are just sort of milling around their machines, pumping their frail little arms once in a while. Damndest thing. Sad, really. Give me Ozzy in The Day biting the head off a live bat. Where has all the music gone?

Day 2:  Chilling with the posse. God, just saying that makes me feel like a cowboy in Alaska. But  I’m so in with these guys. They don’t have a clue I’m a middle-aged adman in a dog collar. So cool! And I’m adopting the lingo quite naturally. It’s like stenography, or code or something. Everything’s shorthand. When something is funny they just, you know, laugh. But if they’re reading something that is only mildly funny they laugh in writing; LOL. Which means Lil Ol’ Laugh. Kind of cute. That’s just one example.

Day 3; Went to another rave. Dropped ecstacy. While crawling around on the floor looking for it some punk-ass in purple platform jackboots kicked me in the Shins t-shirt, which is to say, my ribs. This compelled more crawling, now accompanied by moaning. On the other hand I found two ibuprofen down there. Score!

Day 8: How long can I do this? These kids got nothing going on. They sort of lounge around their computers and watch these little movies. Or they look at these stupid pictures, some with captions, some not. They call them ‘means’. Not sure why. But they look at these things over and over. Just..batshit crazy, I don’t get it. ‘Dramatic Chipmunk’ is one of these so-called ‘means’; three minutes of a chipmunk looking at you. Really? How unfair for these poor little bastards. We get Knievel in extreme, loving slo-mo going over the handlebars at Caesar’s Palace, hitting the pavement, sliding. That’s a video. I’ve watched that thing maybe 3000 times. Them? Dramatic Chipmunk. Hoo boy.

Day 15: Nearing the end of my rope. Another day, another rave. Just one act this time, a couple of French do-nothings in robot helmets, standing around under a neon pyramid. Daffy Duck — no…Daffy Punk. Crowd went into that trance, waving around like Bible Belt snake handlers. I’d been noticing that a lot of the kids at these things had pacifiers in their mouths, I swear to God. So I picked one up at Babies R Us in the afternoon and made a big show of jamming it in my yap outside the club that evening, so the bouncers and other trip-hip-hopper cognescenti could see I was in the groove, you know. I got a really good one with a little tinkling bell on it, and a little velveteen ribbon of deepest blue. Oh, they looked, all right. You coulda heard a pin drop. What you heard instead was the little bell on my righteous pacifier. Hey, there’s a spy in the house of love! This agent is all in, yo. But it’s a le Carre hall of mirrors. I mean, sometimes I wonder if J3ff is taking over. Then I see myself in the club’s filthy men’s room mirror with a tinkling little pacifier in my gob, a dog collar chafing my fat neck and my teal liptick a smeared slash across my mouth. Then I think, nah, J3ff’s probably not going to take over.

Day 21: I’m introduced to the Duckface phenomenon. omg. Duckface? It’s that omnipresent, deadpan pursing of the lips used by young girls in online snapshots to express either a kind of bored street-insouciance or the terrible ruin done by a gang of earwig larvae meandering from one side of the skull to the other through the middle of the brain. The Duckface phenomenon generates many gobbabytes of impassioned conversation on the www. Yes. Duckface. It’s worse than I’d feared. These things are viral, all right; crushing the culture’s outer cell wall and injecting a slow-motion pillow fight into the mitochondrial nexus. Soon enough the Zeitgeist develops a runny nose, itchy eyes and cascading organ-failure.

Day 28: Oh God oh God! Can we go outside guys? Shoot a little hoop? Catch a movie? Oh..we’re chillin…yeah. I’m down. OH NO! OH NO! I WON’T WATCH DRAMATIC CHIPMUNK AGAIN! NO! GUYS? NO! NO STAR WARS KID, EITHER. I — DON’T PLAY DRAMATIC CHIPMUNK OR STAR WARS KID AGAIN!  DON’T YOU DARE PLAY DRAMATIC CHIPMUNK!

Day 40: I think maybe my Dramatic Chipmunk breakdown 12 days ago was a mistake. When a grown man really gets to crying even the uninformed can see it for exactly what it is; a balding office worker in a frayed dog collar and carefully tattered post-irony Herman’s Hermits tube top, laying prostrate on the floor and weeping like the damned. The morning after my collapse I awoke to find my posse had Superglued my Sidney Vicious Clip-On Safety Pins to my earlobes. I tore them off in anger and there went part of my right earlobe. Still I maintained. Soon their fey passive aggressive taunting broke me. I flung the remains of my dog collar to the floor and with some quite awkward difficulty managed to peel off my bindi. “There. Now you see me as I really am!” I shouted, my floral leggings and aviator goggles already forgotten in the melee. If they would out me as a middle class bore whose ill-fitting Guy Fawkes mask would cause him to walk blindly into rush-hour traffic, I would out them as morons. This Establishment Grup would lift the veil on their almost explosive cultural ignorance. So began our hellish minuet.

“Taj Mahal!” I cried.

“It’s a kind of seizure, The worst kind.”

“Albert Einstein!”

“Monster with neck bolts.”

“Heisenberg’s Principle!”

“Don’t Ride in Giant Flammable Balloons.”

I paused.

“van Gogh!”

“An express car wash.”

“No, but not bad.”

At the end of the subterfuge, we made our peace, me and the Dramatic Chipmunk monks. We went our separate ways, with maybe a little more understanding of each other’s worlds; I grokked the hermetically sealed electronic cocoon that comprises their apprehension of the cartwheeling universe in all its multiplicity, they shrank even further from the soulless 8-5 fabric-covered cubicle in which I bake my daily bread. Two worlds that will never collide. It was a month later I noticed the tattoo. Somehow they’d punctured and painted the back of my neck, a miniscule little bit of clear blue script in an attractive and unassuming font. How had they done this? It says much about my largely unsuccessful attempts to weather their KitKat-fueled all-nighters. At first I thought it was a bruise of some kind, craning my stiff neck to see it in the mirror.

14AA41.

Game Day

Cheating-Gamesters_of_Triskelion

cheaters sometimes prosper

Hello, Niederhoffers! You guys still thinking of joining us for a little board game gathering this Saturday? We had such fun with y’all the last time. If you’re game (get it? haw haw), what works best for us is an early afternoon meeting. Beth is preparing a couple snacks and has hired a pole dancing slime devil from Deneb IV whose arrival time by shuttle has been only vaguely reported. You know how chronically late the slow-poke Denebians can be. But give them a saucerful of tranya and a pole and you’ve got a party. Woo hoo! Should be an eye opener for the kids.

Here’s a snapshot from our last gathering where the rules-are-for-losers denizens of Triskelion cheated after about 1/2 hour of deceptively amiable play by choking us with glowing collars which we were, of course, fools to have agreed to wear in the first place. Live and learn. I trust your neck wounds have healed up nicely. The Star Fleet Duty-Free shop sells an ointment that helps.

Looking forward to our get-together.

The Favershams