A Black Poet, a White Politician, an SNL Parody - and How to Avoid the Danger of Being Too Sure
Lucille Clifton, Richard Nixon, Steve Martin. It’s not every day you’ll hear these three names mentioned in the same breath. But we live in a world of unusual juxtapositions. Look no further than postmodern art by Romare Beardon and Robert Rauschenberg. Or any city skyline with a Rennaissaince style church shadowed by a glass skyscraper.
Sometimes groupings like this are ironic. Others are accidental or focus on incongruity or commonality. But I’ve handpicked my threesome to make a point about the ‘perception trap’ — the perilous belief that your particular way of looking at things is the right one. There’s a lot of that going around these days. Almost no one seems immune. In American and UK politics, for example, it’s led to extreme polarization fueled by social media platforms that turn anyone with a smartphone into an instant bullhorn.
It’s only human to perceive the world around you and draw conclusions based on the information you’re processing. But it’s pure folly to pretend yourconcepts are the only correct interpretation.
So I’ve concocted a mental flu-shot comprised of life hacks gleaned from the lives of three iconic individuals from entirely different walks of life, chased by a little something extra to top it off — the pièce de résistance, if you will.
Why Andrew Young Did Not Die under a Cement Truck & Why He Thinks It's Wrong to Say "Black Lives Matter"
The first thing you notice when Andrew Young enters the room is how small he is. Even with the heft that comes, inevitably it seems, with 83 years, he does not take up that much space. The second thing you notice is the beautiful woman on his arm, Carolyn, who happens to be vice chair of the Andrew Young Foundation and his wife of the past 19 years. If you look past the TV crew and the glare of lights, you will see the watchful eyes of plainclothes security within arms’ reach.
The atrium of the Marriott Marquis is already full, and the Youngs’ entrance is not met with thunderous applause or anything else that might signal attention to their arrival. Drinks are being served. Sushi eaten. Cheese, fruit and various libations consumed. Music from steel drums and the din of cocktail party chatter have taken on a life of their own. If it has not yet occurred to you that something special is happening here, you need only look up to realize you are standing under a glass dome. Although there has been rain enough on this Sunday evening to bring the usual disruptions to Atlanta’s roadways, it does not diminish the impression made by the surrounding skyscrapers. They rise like giants above Peachtree Center -- their windows, unblinking eyes that bear witness to the event below.
Andrew Young walks with a limp now. And if you had not seen him for a while, you would wonder if it was caused by the cement truck that hit his car a few days earlier. But no, he walked away from that, unharmed. The limp is a sign of his tenacity, although those close to him might also call it stubbornness. The man needs knee surgery and refuses to slow down long enough to have it done.
What follows next are photographs, selfies and endless handshaking. Andrew Young is a pro at this. He lets everybody in. Takes time with them all. Smiles. Is polite. Humble. Amazing.
Someone with a microphone quiets the room, and the sponsors of tonight’s event are thanked. The reception is brief, less than an hour. The main event, a dinner and awards ceremony, must begin on time in the adjacent ballroom. You know how these big places are. “Adjacent” is still quite a trek, and The Ambassador—that is what everyone calls Andy Young these days—stops for a moment on a nearby sofa to rest.
That knee. But thank God, it was not the cement truck that caused it.
It will come out during the night that The Ambassador regards his near-death experience casually. “It simply means that it was not my time,” he has said. Hearing this, a proverb comes to mind: “If it’s not your time, nothing can harm you. If it is your time, nothing can save you.”
But then, The Ambassador does not seem to worry much about death. One feels he has found the metaphysical truth behind the Dylan Thomas poem: “After the first death, there is no other.”
First death, you say? The answer is yes. For sure. During the Civil Rights Movement. When he and men like him were willing to die for what they believed in. Young’s book about this is called An Easy Burden. Readers of the New Testament will recognize the Gospel of Matthew in the title. “Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.”
# # #
During the awards dinner, Young only mentioned once that he was “beat up” during the Civil Rights Movement. And it may be that he and Martin and John Lewis felt they might die under those whippings. For who knows where a policeman’s club might fall or whether your skull will crack when your legs are knocked out from under you and your head meets the concrete beneath your feet? But I don’t think that’s the kind of death Young referred to in the title of his memoir. You have to die to yourself and let God take over. Schopenhauer calls it negation of the will. And the thing is, you don’t just do it once. You have to keep on doing it in every moment. Whenever you have a choice about anything. You surrender the ego, and miracles happen. Think it’s easy? Try it sometime.
Andy Young lives this way. He steps back and allows something greater than himself to come forward. That is why every person who spoke at the awards banquet said the words, “I love you,” when they addressed him. The people in the room included Hank Aaron, Congressman John Lewis, Mayor Kasim Reed, Evander Holyfield, Chris Tucker, billionaire philanthropist Strive Masiyiwa, Selma filmmaker Ava Duvernay, Valerie Simpson (Ashford and Simpson) and a host of other singers, musicians, dancers. One of the awardees was Warner Williams, a recently retired African-American vice president of the Chevron Corporation, whose work earned more than two billion dollars in revenue last year. Another was Alana Shepherd, Co-founder of the Shepherd Center where patients with catastrophic spinal injuries find physical, emotional, and psychological rehabilitation and a new lease on life.
The man they were all loving and thanking is a physically small man made large by the thing he surrenders to. Large? Absolutely. Consider the resume: Three-term member of Congress. Two-term Mayor of Atlanta. First African-American Ambassador to the United Nations. The man who helped bring the 1996 Olympics to Atlanta. Author. Preacher. Reverend. Civil Rights Hero. Husband. Father. Grandfather. Friend.
During the course of the evening, Young’s granddaughter mentioned that she had to explain to him why it is important for today’s protesters to say, “Black Lives Matter.” When it was his turn to speak, The Ambassador kindly explained to her that she was wrong. “All lives matter,” he told the room of some 1200 guests. You’ve got it wrong if you think in terms of black and white or of any race. The color is green. What’s happening out there today is the consequence of economic injustice.
Martin Luther King, Jr., Young said, admired the biblical story of The Good Samaritan. But I don’t want to be that Good Samaritan, King used to say. I want to do something about what happens on the difficult and dangerous road to Jericho to keep that man from coming to harm.
Andrew Young has the same goal. His Foundation is working to eradicate economic injustice. It is supporting public-private partnerships on health, nutrition, education, economic growth, democracy, and sustainable energy. Its Making of Modern Atlanta project will create a documentary and a series of panel discussions across the country to document and teach and share the kinds of decisions that helped Atlanta become “the city too busy to hate.” That’s just a little of what it’s doing. There’s a lot more.
The man they call The Ambassador has expanded his reach beyond the limitations of the United Nations into an ambassadorship of international peace and love. Cement trucks come and go. But it is not yet his time. He has too much work to do to stop now.
Andrew Young may be a small man, but that’s okay. His burden is easy.
Among the remarkable people born February 6, we can look to and celebrate the contributions of Ronald Reagan, Queen Elizabeth II, Bob Marley, and Babe Ruth. Singer Natalie Cole is on this list. So is journalist and author Tom Brokaw. February 6 is also the birth date of the third Vice President of the United States, Aaron Burr, remembered most infamously through time for killing Alexander Hamilton during a duel.
But this page directs attention to French New Wave Director Francois Truffaut, whose insightful films include Fahrenheit 451, Jules and Jim, The Man Who Loved Women, and The Last Metro. In a world where homogeneity and conformity of one kind or another seem to rule the day, Truffaut's vision offers the piquant and the peculiar. They are frankly sexual and startlingly candid. The plots matter, but the characters matter more. There is plenty more to say about his great contribution, and the Storify slide-show presentation below will fill in some of the blanks. Don't miss Richard Brody's trenchant New Yorker Magazine observations in Slide #3 or Criterion's "Three Reasons" to like Jules and Jim. As with other presentations of this kind, you can click on a link within each slide to see the video or read the text.
What Rosa Parks - 2/4/1913 - Has in Common with Charles Lindbergh & Betty Friedan - Beyond Birthdays
No doubt astrologists will find some significance in the fact that Rosa Parks, Charles Lindbergh and Betty Friedan were all born on February 4. But they have something other than their Aquarian roots in common too.
When Lindbergh completed the first solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote: "In the late spring of 1927, something bright and alien flashed across the sky. A young Minnesotan who seemed to have nothing to do with his generation did a heroic thing, and for a moment people set down their glasses in country clubs and speakeasies and thought of their old best dreams."
The operative term here is the word dream. Lindbergh flew. Rosa Parks sat down. Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique and created the National Organization for Women.
Each of these heroes took the human race to a new, higher place. They remembered their own best dreams. And in doing so, reminded the rest of us never to forget our own.
Here's a Storfiy slide-show presentation on Rosa Parks. As Sartre tells us, sometimes you have to say No. As Rosa showed us, sometimes sitting down is the same as standing up for what you believe in.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Anton Chekhov (1/29/1860) - His 5-Point Checklist for Creating Great Stories
Many decades before Kathy Bates tormented James Caan in the film version of Stephen King's Misery, Anton Chekhov wrote a far more touching story by the same title. Stephen King's Misery had to do with his addiction to drugs, with the Kathy Bates character demonstrating in fictional terms the writer's punishing relationship to his tormentor. In all likelihood, Chekhov's "Misery" will never make it to anyone's list of scary thrillers. And yet, there is something frightening and sad about the story of a lonely man ( a kind of cab driver) who has sustained a great loss no one wants to hear about. I once asked a professor why this was considered a great story. "Because it makes you cry," she said.
Chekhov's stories don't make a lot of noise - except of course when someone fires a gun. They reach down into the quiet, sad places of the human heart and show you what's lurking there. They look at longing, loss, anticipation and failed ambition. The real stuff of everyday life.
Although he would eventually abandon writing for the theater, Chekhov's collaboration with Stanislavsky yielded a five-point checklist every storyteller should know.
For every character in the story, you must show the following:
It's been quite a while since I've wondered why Chekhov's stories are great. If you read them, you find out why. If you are Raymond Carver, you read them, love them, imitate them. And when you die, newspapers around the world will refer to you as the American Chekhov.
I love Chekhov's "Lady with the Pet Dog." Also his plays, Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya, and The Seagull.
I also love the fact that Chekhov represents a kind of ideal: the poet-scientist. He was a young medical student who started writing stories to support himself through school. Although he became world famous, he continued to practice medicine. He had a dual calling, and he answered both exceedingly well, treating wounded soldiers right up to his death in 1904. As another of my professors once said, "One would like to be like Chekhov."
Here's a Storify slide-show presentation that shows why. There are some good bits here, which include Anthony Hopkins, Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett, and Laurence Olivier. If you don't know Chekhov's "Misery," Kenneth Branagh's reading (also here) is a fine way to get acquainted.
Can One Song Honor the Memory of the Challenger & Also Our Connection to Henry VIII, Jackson Pollock & Alan Alda?
January 28. This date has all the earmarks of a constellation within which individual stars compete with one another for our attention. It's the anniversary of the tragic Challenger space-shuttle explosion in 1986. King Henry VIII died on this day in 1547. Colette was born. So were painters Jackson Pollock and Alice Neel. Alan Alda, Sarah McLachlan, and Nicolas Sarkozy also have birthdays today. On January 28, 1813, Jane Austen published Pride and Prejudice. One could wax eloquent on each of these -- if only there were time and space to do so.
Suffice it then to mark this day with a song that seems to encompass them all. It was on this day in 1985 that a bunch of musicians got together to record U.S.A. For Africa's "We Are the World."
There have been other versions through the years, each with its own take on a familiar theme. Regardless of how the song and its imitations may seem in hindsight, one has to admit that it bears the mark of poetic truth. Perhaps that is why it has struck a chord with more than 34 million viewers on YouTube alone, to say nothing of the millions more who have downloaded it on iTunes or purchased a jewel-cased CD. It carries a message that can never be stated only once, finally and forever. Maybe that message is what the world's religions, each in its own way, have all been striving for all along. That we recognize our connectedness to one another -- and love the world as ourselves. Since, as the poet tells us, no man is an island. We are each a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
Divine Comedy: What Katie Couric's Twerking Has to Do with the BMW i3 & Is Toyota's FCV the Best Thing Since Mozart?
One could argue that Dante’s Divine Comedy was born on this day. For it was on January 27, 1302, that he was exiled from Florence. As one of the city’s six priors, he had banished others and now got a bit of his own in return. Karma. What goes around comes around. That kind of thing.
Although he was to spend the rest of his life wandering from town to town living off the kindness of relatives, if not strangers, this end of his political career turned into the beginning of his masterpiece – the three-part epic poem that begins in Hell (Inferno) moves up a notch to Purgatory, and ends finally in Paradise. It took him 11 years to write, and he died before it became the enormous success that is now taught in every university in the world.
John Ciardi’s translation begins like this: “Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood. How shall I say what wood that was! I never saw so drear, so rank, so arduous a wilderness! Its very memory gives a shape to fear. Death could scarce be more bitter than that place!”
That’s the kind of stuff you write when Karma comes round and knocks you on your tail feathers. Thus, loss serves as a function of redemption.
To mark the anniversary of this important turning point in Dante’s life, I had intended to post this wonderful video. But you know how it is on the internet. Before I could click, I was distracted by a frame showing my old friends Katie Couric and Bryant Gumbel together again in the front seat of the new BMW i3. Déjà vu?
To be clear, I’ve never met Katie or Bryant, but they were a fixture in my house on many mornings as I brushed teeth, gulped coffee, and tried to get a sense of the daily coffee klatch from Today on NBC. They had good chemistry. I liked them. They felt like old friends.
So of course, I had to click like the 2.3 million others who had already done so. The BMW i3 retails for about $42 to $46K. The commercial targets older people, like Katie & Bryant, who have that kind of money to spend on an all-electric car. A millennial on a bicycle looks at the two as they try to figure out this new-fangled contraption. In its effort to relate to the intended audience, the spot reveals the West’s ongoing struggle with the aging process. Pushing into what Jane Fonda refers to as the last third of life, we want to make smart 21st century decisions. We want to remain relevant. We do not want to go gently into that dark night. Perhaps that is why the commercial asks us to consider whether Katie Couric can twerk. After all, wouldn’t everyone rather be more like Miley Cyrus than Dante Alighieri?
The Toyota FCV
Since I wasn't quite ready to run over to my nearest BMW dealer for a test drive, I decided to see what else might be going on in the search for a 21st century solution to the fossil fuel crisis. I'm already a fan of Tesla's three options - the Model S, 3 and X. But look what Toyota has come up with. Will the all-electric car become a fossil before its time? Is the world ready to be changed by hydrogen fuel cell? Toyota thinks we'll need three options going forward: hybrid, hydrogen, and all-electric. The two clips below provide a glimpse of a future that may be just around the corner.
Here's a look at how it works.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MR. MOZART
The technology that wins the race to supplant oil as the world's primary energy source is not likely to last as long as the 713 years since Dante penned the Divine Comedy. Nor even the 259 years since the birth of Mozart, who came to the planet on January 27, 1756, and left us some of the most enduring pieces in the history of music. Any car produced today, however twerky it may prove to be, will likely go the way of everything else that's temporal. Only the eternal survives beyond time. Like the millennial cyclist in Katie and Bryant's new-fangled commercial, future generations will look on our bumbling with amusement. And like the priest in the following scene from Amadeus, they will remember only those things that touch them in some lasting way.
How George Balanchine (1/22/1904) Used the Ardor Aroused by Women to Change the Way America Sees Ballet
The French writer Paul Valery once wrote: "The ardor aroused in men by the beauty of women can only be satisfied by God." There is no truer representation of this assertion than the life and work of choreographer George Balanchine, who was born January 22, 1904. Arguably the most important figure in American ballet, his influence on the way Americans regard this particular art form cannot be denied. He not only taught dancers how to dance, he taught Americans how to look at ballet.
The anniversary of Balanchine's birth happens to coincide with that of playwright August Strindberg (1849), whose nearly insane denunciations of women as "half apes" and "instinctively evil" animals have branded him as a misogynist. It also coincides with the still controversial anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, which legalized elective abortion in fifty states.
Balanchine's place within a configuration that yields such ironies is worth noting. Not only for his contributions to art but for his understanding of the role of The Feminine in relation to the creative process. Women inspire. God creates. Men assemble the pieces and do the yeoman's work. Perhaps that is why Balanchine was great. This understanding aligns him with men like Hermann Hesse, Goethe, and Carl Jung.
There is so much more to say about the astonishing life and work of George Balanchine. Some of it can be found in the interviews, photographs, and video clips in the Storify slide-show presentation below.
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