Sunday, July 28, 2013

Like a Squid

That's sort of how I feel, silent and big-eyed, as I drift in another alien (and I don't mean that in a bad way) environment this very different summer.  First it was California, a vacation and retirement destination like my present stay on the Gulf Coast of Florida.  CA is dry, but like wet FL has many Live Oak trees, lizards and palms; it also has very conspicuously gone far along the road the whole country is taking regarding income disparity.  Like the passenger pigeon and bison in their millions, the middle class is cascading back into the lower classes while a few rise to breathe in the finer air of the 1%.  While there is no state income tax in the Sunshine State, a punishingly large sales tax takes a bite out of the food and clothing purchases of those trying to live on what I've seen to be almost Third-World wages.  One of the young aides at Plaza West Rehab Hospital, where I visit our father daily, told me she is on Medicaid.  Meanwhile, the residents and visitors, almost all of them of the Greatest Generation, arrive in new Cadillacs and Lexuses (Dad's plain Camry sort of stands out).  The very occasional offspring or grand-offspring zip by for a brief visit in 5- and 6-series BMWs.  How would it be to be as sick and disabled as these patients, and not have any financial resources?

Just an observation.  I'm not declaring class war on anyone; they used to beat and shoot the strikers who, back when, on either side of 1900, practiced that in their outrage, and what did that get them?  An eight-hour day, it's true, but exactly the same level of income disparity in the 1920s as there is now.  The intermittent light of progress seems like a candle in the wind, snuffed out sooner rather than later throughout history.

Progress is tripped up by the law of diminishing returns, even without knotheaded humanity doing its best to reverse or nullify it.  An example in today's post at provides a clear example (although a few seconds' recon would provide thousands more):  a very costly refrigerator is now available that promises to cool room-temperature drinks in five minutes.  We see all around us that the costs increase while the worthwhile benefits diminish. It's funny how complicated and overpriced improvements flood the market and our consciousness (through relentless advertising and promotion) while things that need serious attention aren't worked on.  That's the supposed "rationality" and "efficiency" of the free market, folks.  Expensive, short-lived toys we don't need but nothing we desperately do need.

Spending any time in an institution filled with (usually very elderly) people who aren't going to get better, and in fact have lives you would not take ten million dollars to trade for, makes one wonder about how the resources of the vast big business of medicine are allocated.  Of course, it generates an inconceivable amount of money which rises, as always, to the top and like any institution perpetuates itself quite well.  And that's all most of it does.

Seeing those people at the end of their lives makes you realize that our relationship to our (many!) material possessions should have been examined before we wasted so much time and energy accumulating them. Usually all the things you spent so much for, kept for so long, and valued for status or sentimental reasons, just become dead weight.  It would have been better, in hindsight, to have traveled very lightly through life, enjoying what came your way, then passing it along, but seldom holding on to anything.  How many suitcases have N. and I gone through, for example?  Probably over twenty.  One, maybe two, good quality ones would have done the job:  too much is clearly never better, if you have any perspective. 

And this year's model Cadillac SUV may make you think you have status among peers and their admiration, but that's as pointless as trying to impress your pet with your place in the human hierarchy.  That dog or cat knows the only things that do matter: are you kind, do you have a heart?


Sunday, July 21, 2013

Singing in the Dark

Soulful Scotsman

Lisa Fischer in the spotlight

Claudia Lennear

I was listening to WXPN (from the U of PA in Philadelphia) yesterday, and the host said, "that was Rodriguez from his famous album Sugar Man, and one of the finest singers you've never heard of, Frankie Miller."  I'd heard of Rodriguez, who had been living in obscurity for decades (and thought to be long deceased) in Detroit since his last recordings or performances, because he'd been rediscovered as a result of the documentary film made by a persistent overseas fan.  Miller's recording was more compelling, arresting even, but I had indeed never heard of him.  His work isn't even in the Goldmine Record Album Price Guide; only a country artist by the same name who recorded in the early 1960s is.

Mr. Miller is not once-and-done musical mystery man, though; he's had a long career, mostly ascendant in the 1970s, interrupted in 1994 by a serious brain hemorrhage which put him in a coma for almost half a year.  But he's written songs since he was a teen, recorded many, and even had his compositions covered by other singers and songwriters such as Bob Seger.  Rod Stewart said he's "the only white guy who brought a tear to my eye."  He's worked with Nicky Hopkins and Joe Walsh and dozens of others known everywhere.  Fortunately for him, he hasn't faded away later in life, having the closing song in the 2011 Johnny Depp movie, The Rum Diary (which I really need to see).  Some artists (and that's using the term generously, in a lot of cases) are known for decades for one novelty song, many make a lifelong career based on that one song if they don't just disappear, and many others like Mr. Miller never seem the break the surface tension despite persistent and quality efforts.  And many don't get credit at all, remembered or not, like Darlene Love and the Blossoms being used by Phil Spector as the voices for recordings issued under others' names. 

As brought out in the recent movie Twenty Feet from Stardom, many superb vocalists rarely leave the shadows that backup singers and studio session journeymen labor in, despite being as good as or better than the stars.  You'll remember Lisa Fischer if you see the movie, especially for the scene of her recording an operatic song-without-words for a movie soundtrack; she has immense reserves of talent and and intuitively knows exactly what to do without seeming to work and worry over it.

Both Ms. Fischer and Claudia Lennear had moments up front with the Rolling Stones, like Merry Clayton did on the epic "Gimme Shelter."  Claudia was supposedly the inspiration for "Brown Sugar" (you've always wondered who that was, haven't you?) and a song by David Bowie. 

Who knows, maybe fame and exhausting world tours would have done more damage than good to these people's lives. While things like Garth Brooks and Kanye West sell millions of albums and amass a billion dollars, you can only conclude that maybe the wheels of justice do grind very slowly indeed.         

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Going My Way?

I guess I could only make only about one or two posts per month (and this world would, of course, be a poorer place) if I didn't find ideas and stories of events past and present while poking around on the Internet and through what print materials drift by.  My poor old head can only do so much on its own.  So, with full credit to, I'd like to share an observation about the frameworks we use to make some sense of all the inputs we absorb from a big and noisy world.  Mr. Greer, luxuriously bearded author of precisely written essays on that site, this week offered a pair of metaphors for how we think.

Some conceive of human history as linear progress, interrupted and rerouted for periods as it may be, like a road into the future; traffic does get stalled but the movement is inevitably forward.  This is certainly what we think due to our societal values and education, while more than half the populace prefers to look at it in the rearview mirror instead of through the front windshield, trying desperately to return to some previous point in the journey when everything was settled and everyone submitted happily to authority.  So those who believe in scientific and rational progress (what he calls the secular religion) look forward and those whose beliefs are founded in emotion, sentiment (that poor relative of emotion) and theological religion look back to a golden age, but almost all think in terms of a directional road.

Another way of thinking sees time and events as a tree:  an unrecorded beginning as a seed, surviving if resources are found, growing through good times and carefully conserving during adversity, roots searching for sustenance and branches reaching for sunlight full of productive leaves, the ones in the dark naturally dying out.  The journey is up, down and out, but the horizon stays where it always is; there is no illusory forward motion except through time.  This may be a better metaphor for us to go by, as it places humanity on the planet like the tree, succeeding or not depending on the realities of resources and threats, not losing the clear perception of those realities through a fog of abstract beliefs.  Funny to think of some cogitating trees confusing themselves so much with theories of how things are, were or will be that they create the conditions for their own early failure.

Nearby, someone just ordered the clear-cutting of yet another gerrymandered-looking parcel of land, probably to sell or "develop."  A while ago, two streets in town were denuded of big trees and the houses and sidewalks now roast in the sun.  The trees are playing the long game, though:  they'll be back when we idiots hit the end of the road.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Lives We Share

I will be heading south back to Florida, for the third time this summer, to stay at our parents' empty home and visit Dad in the nearby rehab hospital and help him in any little way I can.  I've been wrapped up in trying to find him a place to be after his stay there is up, which at this point means what they call a "skilled nursing" level of care.  He of course wants to return home, and believes he might, but if you can't get up or use the bathroom or get a bath or shower, I don't know how that could work.  Not all, but a lot of us, want to be the free-range kind of chicken.

You would like to make that work, you think several times a day, because being in an institutional room and at the mercy of everyone else makes life look like an empty bowl to a hungry person.  When they leave the little rolling bedside table against the far wall, he can't even reach the cup of water or the TV remote.  Can't reach the light switches, can't see well enough to read, can't hear clearly what people say to you.  It's prison with better furniture and lighting...with no control over anything, nothing to do and nothing to look forward to, your mind sooner or later collapses.

Last time, I found his 1937 high school yearbook at home and brought it in, showing him some pictures and reading his paragraph (which highly praised his tennis game).  I think I am going to bring in some music next time; his one lifelong hobby.  He'd really be happy with a martini, and I might do it, but he's on strong antibiotics.  It doesn't seem to help much to stay on the hospital's good side, but it will help less if they regard the two of us as troublemakers.  I'd like to see him smile, though.

Dad, Mom and for quite a while, Mom's elder sister Carolyn spent 17 pretty happy years in their gated community of neat homes full of retirees, when they weren't on cruises or at jazz festivals.  He said that he liked that no one asked who you were in your active life or what you did, only where you were from, and status wasn't an issue.  Most people tootle around in golf carts on the private roads and they can even get to shopping and offices using them.  Dad and Mom were never outdoor people, despite liking the Sunshine State a lot, and I couldn't see them in the open-to-the-breezes cart either.  Would have been silly fun, though.  As they got older they just visited doctors, usually every day, and did not go the local or clubhouse events as much or the (very nice) pools at all.  In the end, they stayed too long and instead of a transition into assisted living when the warning signs were there, their household fell apart all on one day.

So we will both be in a state of suspended animation for some indeterminate time, while outside our cocoon Florida gets stranger almost daily.  Look for the series on under the heading "Oh, #Florida!" for enough inexplicable weirdness to keep you amused for a while.  Pasco County, north of Tampa, not only has a Bigfoot, but teachers gone wild too:  one recently came to class drunk and forced the students to dance before she ran away and passed out by a community pool.  And one young man was arrested for domestic battery after squirting dish soap into his live-in girlfriend's mouth when she wouldn't stop swearing loudly and repeatedly.  And a little farther north in Sumter County, there's a large master-planned age-restricted community called The Villages built and run to shelter right wing-nuts.  It has its own (mostly illegal) government controlled by the developer, its own propaganda newspaper, and a Fox News-affiliated (natch) radio station.  Palin, Huckabee and Glenn Beck have stopped there to bloviate, defending freedom and virtue, despite the fact that any properties sporting non-Republican campaign signs are frequently vandalized.  Heck, that happens here in Camp Hill, PA, too.  Maybe Florida is just leading the way to a more, um, unbalanced sort of life.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Renegade Village

                   "Off Key Biscayne is a renegade village on stilts where weekend residents live by their own laws.  Their town hall is a floating Bikini Club that swings both day and night."  (May 1967 issue, Argosy magazine)

It was already too late in 1967 for titillated readers to fly off to Miami to check this place out; it had succumbed to storm and fire a year before and passed into legend.  But you can just see Humphrey Bogart or Errol Flynn in a movie version of it, with Miss Bacall at the bar.

Today you can take a "three hour tour" to visit what remains of Stiltsville on the sand banks of Biscayne Bay, but it would have been a lot more fun to have visited it during its heyday from the early 1930s to the early 1960s when 27 structures built on barges, boats or piers dotted the blue waters.  Miami is still the bad boy of American cities, but you can imagine how they, back in the day, turned the Prohibition era to their advantage and had a great time doing it.  The little rule about gambling being legal a mile offshore didn't escape their notice, and littler things like liquor licenses after 1933 didn't even get their notice. 

"Crawfish Eddie" Walker is said to have built the first stilt house, inaugurating three decades of wild partying history.  He began selling bait and beer, and soon his trademark crawfish chowder.  Jimmy Buffett would have gotten along famously with this guy!  Hurricanes over the years decimated the shacks and clubs on a regular basis, and Eddie's disappeared in storm and fire in 1950.

The more ambitious and expensive Calvert Club was built in the late 1930s, followed by the Quarterdeck Club.  Shady businessman Harry Churchville grounded a yacht on the flats and opened the Bikini Club, featuring free drinks for ladies so attired.  During its all-too-brief three year existence, Florida's elite including a fun-loving governor were regulars until the unfortunate lack of a liquor license brought on a raid.   Life magazine described Stiltsville in its prime as "an extraordinary American community dedicated solely to sunlight, salt water and the well-being of the human spirit."  Amen, brother.

The end to the good times came in the early 1960s with more hurricanes and fires; new building permits for the clubs were denied, and as the National Park expanded, commercial operations were banned in 1969.  The legend lives, though, on television and in novels.  Carl Hiaasen, mordant observer of South Florida's casual relationship with law and virtue, has featured Stiltsville as it was and is in three books.

If  you were drifting on a boat late in the evening near the Bay's sand bars you'd hear the ripple of laughter, the clatter of the dice and the clink of martini glasses drift over the shallow water.  They knew how to live, back in the day.