Wednesday, November 30, 2011

If the Occupy Wall Street crowd ran America

What a swell bunch they are. Befouling parks. Throwing intellectual tantrums in the name of indicting capitalism.
So, you demonstrators are angry? Well I’m angry too. But I’m trying to channel it constructively with a few minor cultural adjustments that might appeal to the disaffected:
How about a Capitalists versus Anarchists softball game?
Demonstrators could go to the homes of people they think make too much money. They’d be invited to come in and take showers.
At the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs could calm the national mood by refashioning themselves as an encounter group called Guys Sharing Their Feelings.
Walmart could soften its proto-Goliath image by secretly referring to customers as “aisle bunnies.”
Educators could name schools something trendy and accessible like Knowledge Barn.
Washington could humanize the budgetary process by rechristening it “Fun With Numbers.”
The Wall Street Journal could more fully embrace the proletariat by renaming itself The Bowery Fishwrap.
Here’s a concept: free air travel on DOT Airlines. Everybody’d assume it stands for Department of Transportation. Nope. Delay On the Tarmac. If takeoff is achieved, the flight will go nowhere, thus reflecting the inchoate goals of Occupy Wall Street.
How about renaming the Chicago Bears something more fervently anti-capitalist, like the Chicago Baboons?
Next time there’s a demonstration, let bankers and brokers emerge from their skyscrapers and talk informally to demonstrators. Couldn’t hurt.
In short, the demonstrators have the semblance of a point: capitalism isn’t perfect and can be ludicrously excessive. But, if you attack it, do so with logic and maybe even compassion. Making a nuisance of yourself isn’t enough.
[For more of the same, visit Alan’s blog,]

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Disrespecting iconic American authors

            Ever notice how many of the early American writers had three names? Henry David Thoreau, for example, whom I refer to as Hank Dave as a hedge against pomp. In fact, I’ve nicknamed them all. In the theater of my imagination, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow becomes “Waddie,” and of course there’s Ed Al Poe. (Ignore the unfortunate reference to a contemporary dog food.)
            James Fenimore Cooper becomes familiar as “Fenimore” and Louise May Alcott is Lulu.
   I don’t mess with Ralph Waldo “Emo” Emerson (at left) too much because he seems to have my number. When I dropped in on him in Concord in 1845, our imaginary conversation went like this:
            ALAN – Do you like Thoreau personally?
            EMO – Sure. He and I both write about nature, which he believes he invented.
            ALAN – You mean Walden?
            EMO – Yeah. You realize he comes to my house once a week for a good meal and to do laundry?
            ALAN – I didn’t realize that.
            EMO – Still, he evinces self-reliance to a laudable extent. Convention is not his master.
            ALAN – Or yours?
            EMO – I hope not. He who would be a man must be a non-conformist.
            ALAN – Do you seek out your own means of non-conformity?
            EMO – No. It’s just that I try not to be slavishly consistent in anything.
            ALAN  - A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds?
            EMO – Yeah I said that.
            ALAN – Do you still believe it?
            EMO – Look, I’d had a few drinks, okay? I’m just saying that society is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members; you, me, Thoreau, all of us. We’re all misunderstood.
            ALAN – And that’s a good thing?
            EMO – It’s necessary. Luther and Copernicus and Galileo and Newton – all misunderstood, as was Jesus. To be great is to be misunderstood.
            ALAN – It’s necessary, but surely not sufficient?
            EMO – That’s true. By the way, if you see Thoreau, tell him he forgot his socks.
            Fast forward to present. If this were a textbook it would be time for those inane Questions for Discussion that have nothing to do with the material that’s gone before. Like “What was on Emerson’s mind when he wrote ‘Nature’?” How the devil do I know? I’m just saying that your mind is something for which to be thankful. It can be used well or badly, or brilliantly, as you and I know. And Emerson knew.
            So, anyway, Happy Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Coping with human grace isn’t easy

The other day a dour woman of my acquaintance smiled at me. She’d never done so before and I overreacted. It lit up my day and I went around like a crazed zealot dispensing charm.
I began to look for grace in the news. Nitwit celebrity Paris Hilton was affected by poverty in India and began giving cash to people on the streets of Mumbai. A social conscience? Hooray. Maybe not a nitwit.
A guy who’d never remembered my name before today remembered it. I gloat.
The lady behind the convenience store register caught me leafing through a tabloid. When I started to pay for it, she looked both ways and then whispered to me, “You don’t have to buy it. You can read it and put it back.” A moment of perfect understanding. And grace.
In Washington, two prominent senators of opposing parties co-sponsored a hospitality suite in a search for better understanding and communication.
More politics? In Rio, businesspeople and poor folk samba together in the streets. Said one Carioca, “We invite all the problems to a big party and we let them dance together.” In the next few years Rio will host both the World Cup and the Olympics. Maybe we’ll all dance in the streets.
And movie critic Roger Ebert, despite losing his lower face to cancer, was moved to write, “We must try to contribute joy. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find out.”
Grace was suffusing my being.
Normalcy returned with a close call on the highway evincing faces knit with rage and bellows of rancor. Here was a recognizable reality, and there was no grace. I began wondering how much grace was feasible for me.
Does one’s capacity expand like a glutton’s stomach? Might behaving too well somehow distort “the real me?” Then again, what is “the real me?” Time to find out, I decided. Enough being a work in progress. So I said a cordial “Good morning” to a sidewalk stranger, just for the hell of it. He looked at me askance for a moment, and then he grinned. “Good morning,” he said.
I don’t know how much more of this I can take.

Friday, November 11, 2011

That I should not say foolish things

On the eve of the Gettysburg Address, citizens of Gettysburg crowded Lincoln’s boarding house asking for a few remarks. Replied the President, “I have no speech to make. In my position it is somewhat important that I should not say foolish things.”
Same for all of us, if you ask me. Here are some iterations I wish I hadn’t iterated:
You went to Purdue? Did you by any chance know Dean Halstead? What a clown!... Oh really, your father?
Yo, officer, Smokey the Bear called. He wants his hat back.
You want the truth? Okay, yes, it makes you look fat. Like a gigantic Bedouin tent. Now may I watch the game?
Yeah, sure, if you’re ever in town give me a call!... Oh, you are in town.
Look, I’m not gonna spend money on a professional clown for a birthday party. I’ll do it myself. What can go wrong?
Tige Rafferty? He’s dead isn’t he? Oh! Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Rafferty.
Of course I can order in French. No snooty waiter’s gonna show me up.
Yes I know you’re chairman of the board, but if I gave you a mulligan I’d have to give everyone a mulligan.
Look, I’ve seen these hypnotist acts before. They’re phony. There’s no way he can make me cluck like a chicken or whatever.
How can you say I’m uncultured? I really liked La Boheme! But, come on, you see one opera you’ve seen ’em all.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Propose a ludicrous idea

            My ludicrous idea is for a Human Decency Festival. It’s simple: everyone would behave splendidly for 3-4 hours on a sunny Saturday afternoon.
            You scoff? Of course, everyone does. So the festival organizers would opt for a more marketable theme like a Collard Greens Festival. Thus is human decency equated with a leafy vegetable, which I regard as a good start.
            As you enter the Decency Fest grounds you’d be greeted by a mean person, scowling and demanding, “Make me smile; I’ll bet you can’t.” The kids would make funny faces and give hugs, and the grump would smile.
            There’d be a Kindness Booth staffed by compassionate volunteers. And a Let’s-Talk-About-Your-Favorite-Subject Booth. Reformed bullies would go about serving barbeque to the weak instead of beating them up.
            As for politics, Democrats and Republicans would speak kindly to one another: “Why you’re not a fascist after all. In fact, you’re very pleasant.”
            “And you’re not a commie pig. Say, how about some fudge?”
            The grapevine would transmit grace (“She reminds me of Mother Teresa.”) and there’d be handsome Internet postings (“U R exemplary”). The homily Be On Your Best Behavior would thematically usher people toward chivalry, and The Basic Human Decency (BHD) song would bounce across the grounds: “If your spirit needs a tune-up and you need a lighter load, just put in a quart of BHD and motor on down the road.”
            There’d be badges inscribed “How May I Help You?” Maybe by listening to someone who doesn’t get much attention. Or by vowing to stay in touch and meaning it. Or by saying, “I’m glad you’re here,” with a fine inflection so it doesn’t sound phony.
            Eventually the beautiful afternoon would succumb to the reality of Monday. Unless possibly there’d be a lingering nimbus, an aura where the spirit of the day had been. Maybe behavioral scientists would start noticing excellent behavior instead of always the aberrant. Maybe they’d come to the next festival and man the Kindness Booth.
            Anyway, that’s my ludicrous idea. It can’t hurt to toss something wild into the hopper now and then.