The surprise for me in the passage below wasn’t that Mae West was driven off the air, but that she was ever allowed on. But I shouldn’t need to be reminded that people in the 1930s were a lot hipper and sexier than a lot of their grandchildren.
Of course, the thing I’ve always had trouble getting my head around is that at one time a ventriloquist’s dummy was a radio star.
Broadcasters worried, too, over [FCC Chairman Frank] McNinch’s views on censorship. He gave them reason to be concerned after coming into conflict with the nation’s reigning sex queen, Mae West. On December 12, 1937, West made a guest appearance on The Chase & Sanborn Hour with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. She performed in two comedy skits. Like all the show’s female guest stars, she bantered with McCarthy, but this time she was the one who took the lead, leaving the usually lustful dummy somewhat flustered. “Tell me, Miss West, have you ever found the one man in your life that you could really love?” Bergen asked. “Sure,” West replied, “lotsa times.” Later, she invited Charlie McCarthy into her “woodpile.”
More provocatively, West played Eve in a skit parodying the biblical story of the Garden of Eden. In this version, Eve tempts the serpent, not the other way around, and tricks Adam into eating the forbidden fruit by making it into applesauce. Poking fun at the Bible (on a Sunday, no less) was sure to offend some listeners, especially when Mae West, always a lightning rod for controversy, was involved. But although observers at the time reported that show caused “a storm of protest,” in truth it prompted only four hundred angry letters to the FCC, out of an audience of twenty-three million people. The scholar Steve Craig has studied those letters and found that most were part of a coordinated campaign by the Catholic Legion of Decency to get Mae West kicked off the air. The real controversy only came one month later when the FCC stepped in…
…Mae West would not appear on radio again for fourteen years.
Michael Lewis’ Liar’s Poker, his memoir of his days as a young bond trader on Wall Street, is essentially a morality and cautionary tale. Here he is, though, on why he wrote it and the little bit of good he hoped people might gain from reading it and his sad realization of an effect it did have on certain readers:
When I sat down to write my first book, I had no great agenda, apart from telling what I took to be a remarkable tale. If you’d gotten a few drinks in me and then asked what effect the book would have on the world, I might have said something like, “I hope that college students trying to decide what to do with their lives might read it and decide that it’s silly to phony it up, and abandon their passions or even their faint interests to become financiers.” I hoped that some bright kid at Ohio State University who really wanted to be an oceanographer would read my book, spurn the offer from Goldman Sachs, and set out to sea.
Somehow that message was mainly lost. Six months after Liar’s Poker was published, I was knee-deep in letters from students at Ohio State University who wanted to know if I had any other secrets to share about Wall Street. They’d read my book as a how-to manual.
The [Young Directors Program] would be responsible for Diary of a Mad Housewife, American Graffiti, and the John Cassevetes film Minnie and Moskowitz. It also, however, funded Dennis Hopper’s ill-fated film The Last Movie, the tale of a stuntman who goes native while shooting a western on location in South America.
While filming The Last Movie in Peru, Hopper and crew landed knee-deep in some of the world’s finest cocaine and wound up going native themselves. The result was a drug-fueled sojourn that produced forty hours of film that took Hopper a year to edit down to an incomprehensible six-hour mess. Finally cut to a reasonable length, The Last Movie was released in 1971 and disappeared, along with the next decade of Hopper’s directorial career.
What Serge did not yet know was that Goldman had discovered his downloads ---of what appeared to be the code they used for proprietary high-speed stock market trading---just a few days earlier, even though Serge had sent himself the first batch of code months ago. They’d called the FBI in haste and had put McSwain through what amounted to a crash course in high-frequency trading and computer programming. McSwain later conceded that he didn’t seek out independent expert advice to study the code Serge Aleynikov had taken, or seek to find out why he might have taken it. “I relied on statement from Goldman employees,” he said. He had no idea himself of the value of the stolen code (“representatives from Goldman Sachs told me it was worth a lot of money”), or if any of it was actually all that special (“representatives of Goldman Sachs told us there were trade secrets in the code). The agent noted that the Goldman files were on both the personal computer and the thumb drive that he’d taken from Serge at Newark Airport, but he failed to note that the files remained unopened. (If they were so important, why hadn’t Serge looked at them in the month since he’d left Goldman?) The FBI’s investigation before the arrest consisted of Goldman explaining some extremely complicated stuff to McSwain that he admitted he did not fully understand---but trusted that Goldman did. Forty-eight hours after Goldman called the FBI, McSwain arrested Serge. Thus the only Goldman Sachs employee arrested by the FBI in the aftermath of a financial crisis Goldman had done so much to fuel was the employee Goldman asked the FBI to arrest.
The Granite is our local watering hole, and it doesn’t have much to recommend it, beyond the fact that it’s there. Its virtues reside mainly in what it doesn’t offer, I suppose---no waiters wrestling with their consciences, no chef striving to demonstrate his ability to fuse the Ethiopian and Korean culinary traditions, no music other than the hits of the eighties, piped in through a service that plumbs the deep cuts so that you get to hear The Clash doing “Wrong ‘Em Boyo” and David Byrne’s “Swamp,” from his days with Talking Heads, instead of the same unvarying eternal crap you get on the radio. And it’s dimly lighted. Very dimly lighted. All you see, really, beyond the shifting colors of the TV, is the soft backlit glow of the bottles on display behind the bar dissolving into a hundred soothing glints of gold and copper. It’s relaxing---so relaxing I’ve found myself drifting off to dreamland right there in the grip of my barstool, one hand clenched round the stem of the glass, the other bracing up a chin as heavy as all the slag heaps of the earth combined. You could say it’s my second home. Or maybe my first.
To be as romantic a writer as Thomas McGuane you have to know what isn’t romantic as well as what is. One thing you never want to be is somebody’s homeopathic remedy:
It was unclear whether Andy had a job, though he did have an office with a daybed for what he called “nooners.” Jessica didn’t learn this appalling term until she’d already experienced it, stumbling absently onto the daybed with him. Her previous affairs had been grueling, and she had promised herself not to do grueling again. She saw Andy, initially, as a kind of homeopathic remedy. But then something got under her skin. Maybe it was the karaoke machine in his bachelor apartment or his unpleasant cat or the Ping-Pong matches he pressured her into; the way he darted around in a crouch at his end of the table made it clear to her that she’d never sleep with him again.
We sat in silence while Johnson formulated an answer. He had the sympathetic look on his face that teachers use when they don’t want to discourage classroom discussion, even though the students obviously haven’t understood the assigned reading.
It was farther into the local countryside than Lara had ever been. On the way back he drove a country road, partly unpaved, that ran through Harrison County’s scrubby hills and sunken meadows. The days was sunny, snowy and bright.
“My God,” she said. “It’s so desolate. Desolate, desolate. So far from anywhere.”
“You’re in Flyoverland, my dear.”
“You’ve never heard the middle of the country called that? Flyoverland. That’s what they call our little corner of nothing much. On the coasts.” He shifted down as they approached dirt. It was a shame to muddy the car. “At least,” he said, “that’s what they tell me. No one ever called it that to me.”
She laughed. “Flyoverland. And what would you have done if someone had called it that to you?”
“I don’t know,” Michael said…. “Nothing much.” It’s how we think of ourselves. We don’t expect much.”
“But all Americans have the right to happiness, isn’t that right?”
“How long have you been out here?” Michael asked her.
She shrugged. “A year.”
“Do you have the impression that you’re among people who think they have a right to happiness?”
“But yes,” she said. “They do think it. It’s why they’re so unhappy.”
“You’re mistaken. You need a good history of the settlement.”
“Secrets,” Michael said. “Deep melancholy. Sudden death. Those are what we have the right to.”
“But no longer.”
“But they have God.”
He glanced at her, to judge how contemptuously she spoke. It was hard to tell.
“We don’t presume on God. Now we see Him, now we don’t. Mostly we don’t.”
Ice storm. Hastings woods. Westchester County, New York. Saturday. January 18, 2015. By long time visitor to Mannionville M. George Stevenson who comments on his own photography skills: “Scary what you can do with a phone these days.”
Scenes like this always put me in mind of poems by Robert Frost which is natural since Frost wrote his poems to put readers in mind of scenes like this.
Out walking in the frozen swamp one gray day, I paused and said, 'I will turn back from here. No, I will go on farther—and we shall see.' The hard snow held me, save where now and then One foot went through. The view was all in lines Straight up and down of tall slim trees Too much alike to mark or name a place by So as to say for certain I was here Or somewhere else: I was just far from home. A small bird flew before me. He was careful To put a tree between us when he lighted, And say no word to tell me who he was Who was so foolish as to think what he thought. He thought that I was after him for a feather— The white one in his tail; like one who takes Everything said as personal to himself. One flight out sideways would have undeceived him. And then there was a pile of wood for which I forgot him and let his little fear Carry him off the way I might have gone, Without so much as wishing him good-night. He went behind it to make his last stand. It was a cord of maple, cut and split And piled—and measured, four by four by eight. And not another like it could I see. No runner tracks in this year's snow looped near it. And it was older sure than this year's cutting, Or even last year's or the year's before. The wood was gray and the bark warping off it And the pile somewhat sunken. Clematis Had wound strings round and round it like a bundle. What held it though on one side was a tree Still growing, and on one a stake and prop, These latter about to fall. I thought that only Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks Could so forget his handiwork on which He spent himself, the labor of his ax, And leave it there far from a useful fireplace To warm the frozen swamp as best it could With the slow smokeless burning of decay.
Applies to more than just a futile, rain-soaked search for weed:
What Sortilege had tried to point out about Ouija boards, as Doc later learned back at the beach, while wringing out his socks and looking for a hair dryer, was that concentrated around us are always mischievous spirit forces , just past the threshold of human perception, occupying both worlds, and that these critters enjoy nothing better than to mess with those of us still attached to the thick and sorrowful catalogs of human desire. “Sure!” was their attitude, “you want dope? Here’s your dope, you fucking idiot.”
A weather report from the end of the 60s, metaphors with an increasing chance of symbolism throughout the day:
Sunrise was on the way, the bars were just closed or closing, out in front of Wavos everybody was either at the tables along the sidewalk, sleeping with their heads on Health Waffles or in bowls of vegetarian chili, or being sick in the street, causing small-motorcycle traffic to skid in the vomit and so forth. It was late winter in Gordita, though for sure not the usual weather. You heard people muttering to the effect that last summer the beach didn’t have summer till August, and now there probably wouldn’t be any winter till spring. Santa Anas had been blowing all the smog out of downtown L.A., funneling between the Hollywood and Puente Hills on westward through Gordita Beach and out to sea, and this had been going on for what seemed like weeks now. Offshore winds had been too strong to be doing the surf much good, but surfers found themselves getting up early anyway to watch the dawn weirdness, which seemed like a visible counterpart to the feeling in everybody’s skin of desert winds and heat and relentlessness, with the exhaust from millions of motor vehicles mixing with microfine Mojave sand to refract the light toward the bloody end of the spectrum, everything dim, lurid and biblical, sailor-take-warning skies. The state liquor stamps over the tops of tequila bottles in the stores were coming unstuck, is how dry the air was. Liquor-store owners could be filling those bottles with anything anymore. Jets were taking off the wrong way from the airport, the engine sounds were not passing across the sky where they should have, so everybody’s dream got disarranged, when people could get to sleep at all. In the little apartment complexes the wind entered narrowing to whistle through the stairwells and ramps and catwalks, and the leaves of the palm trees outside rattle together with a liquid sound, so that from inside, in the darkened rooms, in louvered light, it sounded like a rainstorm, the wind raging in the concrete geometry, the palms beating together like the rush of a tropical downpour, enough to get you to open the door and look outside, and of course there’d only be the same hot cloudless depth of day, no rain in sight.
But he was alone. And on hot afternoons like this it was easy for him to believe he was the only foreigner on the Lower River, the last living mzungu on this hot dusty planet, with his retinue, the skinny girl, the dwarf, and his snakes. He was so content in this role as the last man, he had stopped tuning his radio and ceased to take an interest in the news. He rediscovered what he’d forgotten from before: stop listening to the news, and let two weeks go by; tune in again, and you realize you’ve missed nothing, and so you were cured of the delusion that you needed to stay current. The news didn’t matter, because nothing was news.
That’s good, he said. Now let’s begin with the obvious part, something we can agree on. This diagonal line on the left---which of the two diagonals on the right does it extend to?
The top one, I answered.
Of course it does, said Zafar. Now take this other napkin and line it up to check you’re right. Humor me.
I should have should have seen it coming. As I brought the edge of the folded napkin against the diagonal in the top left of the diagram, it became apparent that this line extended downward not to the top diagonal, as I had said, but to the bottom one.
This is Poggendorff’s illusion, said Zafar. Johann Poggendorff, he continued, was a nineteenth-century German physicist and the creator of a number of measuring devices. Your father will probably have heard of him. There are countless optical illusion of a similar type---you probably know the Müller-Lyer illusion: two parallel lines with arrows at the end, arrows inverted at one of the lines; which line is longer?
I know that one, I said.
But it’s Poggendorff’s illusion I like the most, because it reminds me of the distinction between a reason for doing something and an incidental benefit of doing it. But I’ll come to that. You say that once we know how the world actually is---once we see it correctly---we can fix things. Now that you know what the truth here is, let me ask you one more time: Which of these two diagonals on the right, the top one or the boom, which of them looks---and I mean looks---like it’s the extension of the diagonal on the left?
The same. Nothing’s changed, I replied. It looks the same as before.
Knowing how things are doesn’t make you see them correctly, doesn’t stop you from seeing things incorrectly. Stare at the image as much as you like, it’s all in vain. It will never surrender the truth, not to your naked eyes; you have to go in armed with a straightedge.
The woods of Arcady are dead, And over is their antique joy; Of old the world on dreaming fed; Grey Truth is now her painted toy; Yet still she turns her restless head: But O, sick children of the world, Of all the many changing things In dreary dancing past us whirled, To the cracked tune that Chronos sings, Words alone are certain good. Where are now the warring kings, Word be-mockers? - By the Rood, Where are now the warring kings? An idle word is now their glory, By the stammering schoolboy said, Reading some entangled story: The kings of the old time are dead; The wandering earth herself may be Only a sudden flaming word, In clanging space a moment heard, Troubling the endless reverie. Then nowise worship dusty deeds, Nor seek, for this is also sooth, To hunger fiercely after truth, Lest all thy toiling only breeds New dreams, new dreams; there is no truth Saving in thine own heart. Seek, then, No learning from the starry men, Who follow with the optic glass The whirling ways of stars that pass - Seek, then, for this is also sooth, No word of theirs - the cold star-bane Has cloven and rent their hearts in twain, And dead is all their human truth. Go gather by the humming sea Some twisted, echo-harbouring shell. And to its lips thy story tell, And they thy comforters will be. Rewording in melodious guile Thy fretful words a little while, Till they shall singing fade in ruth And die a pearly brotherhood; For words alone are certain good: Sing, then, for this is also sooth. I must be gone: there is a grave Where daffodil and lily wave, And I would please the hapless faun, Buried under the sleepy ground, With mirthful songs before the dawn. His shouting days with mirth were crowned; And still I dream he treads the lawn, Walking ghostly in the dew, Pierced by my glad singing through, My songs of old earth's dreamy youth: But ah! she dreams not now; dream thou! For fair are poppies on the brow: Dream, dream, for this is also sooth.
It was not my train because, one it was too expensive: it would have cost me around $9,000, one way, from Paris to Istanbul. Reason two: luxury is the enemy of observation, a costly indulgence that induces such a good feeling that you notice nothing. Luxury spoils and infantilizes you and prevents you from knowing the world. That is its purpose, the reason why luxury cruises and great hotels are full of fatheads who, when they express an opinion, seem as though they are from another planet. It was also my experience that one of the worst aspects of traveling with wealthy people, apart from the fact that the rich never listen, is that they constantly groused about the high cost of living---indeed, the rich usually complained of being poor.
I was on the other Orient Express, traveling through eastern Europe to Turkey. The total was about $400 for the three days and three nights, not luxurious (from the looks of the train at the Gare de l’Est) but pleasant and efficient.
The summer that Coleman took me into his confidence about Faunia Farley and their secret was the summer, fittingly enough, that Bill Clinton’s secret emerged in every last mortifying detail---in every last lifelike detail, the livingness, like the mortification, exuded by the pungency of the specific data. We hadn’t had a season like it since somebody stumbled upon the new Miss America nude in an old issue of Penthouse, pictures of her elegantly posed on her knees and on her back that forced the shamed young woman to relinquish her crown and go on to become a huge pop star. Ninety-eight in New England was a summer of exquisite warmth and sunshine, in baseball a summer of mythical battle between a home-run god who was white and a home-run god who was brown, and in America the summer of an enormous piety binge, a purity binge, when terrorism---which had replaced communism as the prevailing threat to the country’s security---was succeeded by cocksucking, and a virile, youthful middle-aged president and a brash, smitten twenty-one year old employee carrying on in the Oval Office like two teenage kids in a parking lot revived America’s oldest communal passion, historically perhaps its most treacherous and subversive pleasure: the ecstasy of sanctimony. In Congress, in the press, and on the networks, the righteous grandstanding creeps, crazy to blame, deplore, and punish, were everywhere out moralizing to beat the band: all of them in a calculated frenzy with what Hawthorne…identified in the incipient country of long ago as “the persecuting spirit”; all of them eager to enact the stringent rituals of purification that would excise the erection from the executive branch, thereby making things cozy and safe for Senator Lieberman’s ten-year-old daughter to watch TV with her embarrassed daddy again…
It was the summer in America when the nausea returned, when the joking didn’t stop, when the speculating and the theorizing and the hyperbole didn’t stop, when the moral obligation to explain to one’s children about adult life was abrogated in favor of maintaining every illusion about adult life, when the smallness of people was simply crushing, when some kind of demon had been unleashed in the nation and, on both sides, people wondered “Why are we so crazy?,” when men and women alike, awakening in the morning, discovered that during the night, in a state of sleep that transported them beyond envy or loathing, they had dreamed of the brazenness of Bill Clinton. I myself dreamed of a massive banner, draped dadaistically like a Christo wrapping from one end of the White House to the other and bearing the legend A HUMAN BEING LIVES HERE. It was the summer when---for the billionth time---the jumble, the mayhem, the mess proved itself more subtle than this one’s ideology and that one’s morality. It was the summer when a president’s penis was on everyone’s mind, and life, it all its shameless impurity, once again confounded America.
My favorite curmudgeonly travel writer curmudgeons his way back to Africa:
But I had yet other reasons [for making the trip], just as pressing. The main one was physically to get away from people wasting my time with trivia. “I believe the mind can be permanently profaned by the habit of attending to trivial things,” Thoreau wrote in his essay “Life Without Principle,” “so that all our thoughts be tinged with triviality.”
In going away I wanted to frustrate the stalkers and pesterers, to be unobtainable and not live at the beck and call of emailers and phoners and people saying “Hey, we’re on deadline!”---other people’s deadline, not mine. To travel unconnected, away from anyone’s gaze or reach, that is bliss.