Julius, O Julius, Wherefore Art Thou Julius?

Shakespeare in the Park is irresistible because. . . Central Park (photo by Joan Marcus).

The main problem with the Public Theatre’s production of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, now playing at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, is that its frame is warped. Director Oskar Eustis has set the tale first in New York City then in Washington, D.C., in the time of our current great distress. He has dressed his Julius Caesar as a lean and hungry Trump, who struts and frets his overlong hour upon the stage as a great buffoon. This Caesar plunges stupidly into the senators’ trap, dying ignominiously in a moment closer to commedia dell’arte than tragic drama. His death is a relief to us all. The mayhem that ensues seems unmotivated.

It’s a silly notion from the get-go likening the Carrot-in-Chief to the second noblest Roman of them all. It is akin to Dan Quayle’s self-comparison to JFK. We’ve studied Caesar in history, in literature. Anyone who took Latin read of Caesar’s exploits in his own words. We know Julius Caesar. That guy in the White House is no Julius Caesar.

The fault is not in the stars but in our President. The players have a firm grasp on their characters, but #45 is anything but the brilliant tactician, valiant soldier, and learned scholar Julius Caesar was. In his will, the real Caesar named the people of Rome among his heirs, and much of his property was turned over to the city. He was, in theory at least, a proponent of human rights. In Shakespeare’s version of the tale, he is a true patriot, whose vaulting ambition undermines his love of country. As trusted as a politician might be, that Caesar is an upholder of the Republic, a servant of the people.

The current American POTUS believes in nothing and in no one but himself. His ambition may sometimes pose as patriotism, but he abhors the body politic and disdains his fellow citizens. He is a narcissist, a pompous blowhard, whose rise to power is entirely the folly of the rabble that Marullus addresses at the top of the play as, “You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!” These modern day “hard hearts of Rome” have raised up a feeble prince as their savior, and it is his inadequacy that destroys the current production at its core.

Theoretically, this play is an apt mirror unto our times. It’s about the corruption of power, about the way in which the fickle masses aggrandize false prophets, the way we easily relinquish our power to undeserving leaders. And what is art if not the means by which we see ourselves? As Brutus tells Cassius, “ . . . the eye sees not itself/ But by reflection.” If the play were the thing wherein to catch the conscience of a despot, then the slings and arrows of post-Pompey Rome should be the perfect foil for our present morass.

But Shakespeare’s play is lost in a jumble of ill-fitting implications. Having chosen to contemporize the play, Eustis could have preserved it and made it work in the way that some of our best popular entertainment works. Julius Caesar is as much Frank Underwood (House of Cards) or Don Draper (Mad Men) as he is the self-proclaimed Roman god. If Eustis had cast a Trump-ish leader without the multiple specifics that make this one exclusively Donald Trump, the play might have prevailed. It might have been set anywhere in the US, the title character played as any generic American politician. The satire would be obvious. The audience would extrapolate the underlying meaning without graphic detail. The writing is strong enough to work without the cartoonishly overblown visual references this director supplies. But Eustis doesn’t trust us.

His Julius Caesar is more about itself than it is about anything verging on what Shakespeare created. This JC strides the earth like a Donald-cloned Colossus, replete with the long red tie and the bright yellow pompadour. His Calpurnia (Tina Benko) walks with a sneer and speaks with an exaggerated Slovenian accent. There is no doubt who these two are. Eustis is so afraid we won’t get it, he even adds words to Caesar’s opening statements, having him directly address the good people of New York, telling them he is the greatest, that he will please them bigly. Then, just to be sure we haven’t missed it, he sets the scene preceding the murder in a bathtub full of steaming water. Calpurnia, rolling all her Rs and jumbling her sentence structure, almost succeeds in seducing him into staying at home on this dangerous Ides of March. But when the conspirators arrive and convince him he must to the Senate and receive his just rewards, this Orange Julius stands so that everyone can see his shriveled little appendage. Thanks, Mr. Eustis.

Calpurnia (Tina Benko) uses body language to dissuade her Caesar (Gregg Henry) from leaving his home on his fateful day. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

The production definitely improved after Caesar’s death. But even then, it reminded me more of a high school theater’s attempt at satire. The addition of crowds chanting “We rise” and “Resist” and other all-too-recognizable standards was cheap, amateurish. The hand was so overplayed that the overall experience was numbing.

Which was too bad on many levels.

Brutus (Corey Stoll) and Cassius (John Douglas Thompson) seal their deal. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Some wonderful acting got lost in the melee. Corey Stoll’s brooding Brutus is a thoughtful intellectual. But played in the light of the stunningly farcical Caesar, he seems more like the supercilious guy from the SNL “Deep Thoughts” routine of years ago. John Douglas Thompson is a powerful Cassius, whose ardor and sincerity work well when he is in scenes with Stoll’s Brutus but look ridiculous when he’s anywhere near the other characters and the absurdity of the staging. Stoll and Thompson are in a play of their own. Whenever they must interact with the rest of the company, they are like characters from a Pirandello scenario experimenting with interpretations. Especially when they are playing scenes opposite this feeble Julius Caesar. Or Marc Anthony.

Elizabeth Marvel’s Anthony, with an on-again-off-again Southern accent, is as much a cartoon as the slain hero she mourns. She reminded me more of the television version of Wonder Woman than of anyone cunning enough to have led the retaliation forces that shape the play’s action. I love that a woman is entrusted with this role. I wish the actor, who has played so many powerful, strong-willed, charismatic leaders in her past, had had license to embody a soldier I might have believed.

Nor is Gregg Henry culpable. He plays Julius Caesar exactly as the production demands. Which makes for an overlong SNL skit – where he’d give Alex Baldwin some real competition – rather than anything close to real dramatic art. If this were a sketch by the Uptown Citizens’ Brigade, I’d give him a standing ovation. Alas, it’s Shakespeare in the Park.

And something I’m a bit unclear about here. When Julius Caesar is assassinated, there is no question that the man with the tight suit and the impervious swagger is the present POTUS. Which means that in essence, it is #45 who is stabbed in effigy. How is that not treason? How does this not cross the line? And when the line is crossed, how is the satirist any less officious and self-important than his subject?

It’s all well and good to time bend, gender bend, and story bend in Shakespeare. Two Verona gentlemen dancing blithely in ‘70s hip-hop psychedilia, a midsummer night’s dream transpiring in a floating phantasm of umbrellas, and Coriolanus as a Nazi general are easily acceptable. Each is a fitting transformation. Shakespeare wrote characters and stories that breathe universally over time and across any era. But in order for the re-juxtaposing to work, the basic assumption must be appropriate.

In the end, Julius Caesar is not a comedy of errors, and it doesn’t play well as one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

All Power to the People

“Get down on your knees to remember what it’s like when the people
with power
literally loom over you.” 
Roald Dahl

The suggestion that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Price, now playing on Broadway, are comparable might leave the impression that I am delusional. Or painfully simplistic. And I hardly expect that anyone will run out to see the two back-to-back as I did last week. But I did, and I am compelled to point out the commonalities. And I’m not stretching.

Obviously, the plays represent vastly differing worlds. Charlie is a musical based on a children’s book by Roald Dahl. It takes place on the streets of London and in a fantastical candy factory. The Price is a drama, written by the iconic American tragedian Arthur Miller. This one is set in a prewar New York apartment, about to be torn down. But they were written by left-leaning writers deep in the throes disillusionment. Each features a protagonist who has been victimized by the vagaries of economics. Both reflect a kind of nostalgia for a humanity that is all too rare in our greed-driven society.

Arthur Miller’s The Price, on Broadway, starring (l to r) Jessica Hecht, Mark Ruffalo, Tony Shalhoub, and Danny DeVito.  Photo courtesy of The Roundabout Theatr.

What began my thinking process was the set of the current production of The Price, directed by Terry Kinney. In this iteration, designer Derek McLane has taken Miller’s hyper-real descriptions and created a surreal environment. The regal old world furniture of the bygone era of the family’s fortune flies suspended like memory over the action of the play. Memory is addled by time and perspective. We cannot trust it. But it dangles insistently, sometimes as a comfort but more often as a Damocles sword.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is entirely surreal. The play, with music and lyrics by Mark Shaiman and book by David Grieg, is set in the realm of the imagination. Memories mesh with wishes and become a kind of armor. Director Jack O’Brien and Designer Mark Thompson have kept the stage starkly simple.  The audience must suspend disbelief and accept this world as a real possibility.  Otherwise they miss the play’s fundamental truth.  Without his fancy, Charlie Bucket (Ryan Sell on the day I attended), might never see what life has to offer. Along with Charlie, we must reach out to worlds “not yet conceived, worlds that must be believed to be seen.”

Charlie is a member of a family so poor they eat rotten Brussels sprouts and make soup from moldy cabbage. His mother Mrs. Bucket (Emily Padgett), a widow, is responsible to feed an absurdly large number of mouths. She has no time or patience for the world of imagination that holds her son in its thrall. She wishes she were free to dream, but she’s been crushed by circumstance. Charlie’s four grandparents live in a single bed in the loft above the kitchen of their little flat. At first, none of them is able to leave that bed. The entire contingent seems cynical, resigned to their predicament, willing to remain prisoners of their poverty.

Grandpa Joe (John Rubenstein), Charlie’s paternal grandfather, is 96 and a half, “about as old as a man can be.” He worked for Willy Wonka when Wonka had nothing but a candy store and then became a security guard at the factory. But spies infiltrated the chocolate world and stole the recipes, forcing Wonka to fire everyone, including Mr. Bucket. Mr. Bucket is not bitter. He understands that his firing was a symptom of the company’s overall failure. And the company’s failure as a sign of the times.

As the story commences, Wonka (Christian Borle) has only just begun to recommence production of his most famous chocolate bar. The Golden Tickets he has hidden in the candy bars serve two purposes. They offer incentives for customers to try the candy and become fans. And they provide Wonka with an opportunity to seek out an honest person to inherit his legacy. He seems to be a man who will cheat even so sweet a boy as Charlie just to make a buck. But things are not as they seem.

In the current production, directed by Jack O’Brien, Charlie is a blithe spirit. He breezes through his troubles without resentment and greets his dismally accoutered world with unerring optimism. When he meets Willy Wonka disguised as a local candy store proprietor, he perceives a chance to be useful and subjugates his own burning desire for the Golden Ticket to the older man’s need for an assistant. He is not paid for his labor, and he never complains, even when a paycheck might enable him and his surreal coterie of bedridden forebears a decent meal. Wonka is a devious guy, squirrely, avaricious. But by the end of the play our suspicions about him are proved true: he’s a sensitive despot, a kind master. He manipulates fate a bit so that Charlie’s wishes can come true.

When Charlie finally finds a ticket after several unsuccessful attempts, he stands out among the winners as the only respectful, grateful presence in the group. Wonka has met him but in disguise and knows what to expect from Charlie, and Charlie does not disappoint. He is unfailingly concerned for the well-being of the others, and he is scrupulously honest and forthright. Charlie is the only contestant, whose eyes are not blinded by the grand prize.

He navigates every moment, present and cognizant of what is around him. He sincerely seeks to learn all there is to know about making chocolate, inventing new treats. He may be poor, but he has real soul. He has drive, but he is not driven to thwart others in his pursuit of his goals. He is a mensch. And this, we come to learn, is what Willie Wonka had hoped he would be. The meek shall inherit after all.

The Price protagonist Victor Franz (Mark Ruffalo) is walking collateral damage. His father lost everything in the Great Crash of 1929, and Victor’s future was compromised. He missed his chance to go to MIT and “be somebody.”   But Victor never questioned his responsibility. He moved in with Dad, took care of him when he was incapacitated, and sacrificed his will to the needs of the older man. He may not be as jovial as Charlie, but he is no less circumspect. He understands what his choices were, and he has no regrets. He has served as a policeman, has raised a fine son, has never stopped loving his cynical, needy wife (Jessica Hecht).

Victor’s wife is endlessly dissatisfied with everything except her husband, to whom she is unerringly loyal. But she wants more than he has to offer. She begs him to sell the contents of his father’s house at an inflated price. She wishes to buy her way into a life she deems more suitable than that of a policeman’s wife. Knowing the antiques appraiser is on his way, she encourages Victor to embellish the worth of his father’s belongings, to lie about their provenance.

Victor’s older brother Walter (Tony Shalhoub) also encourages the younger man to sell out to the highest bidder. Victor sees the inherent worth in the memories imbedded in his father’s furniture. Walter sees only the dollar value. He wants Victor to find a cutthroat appraiser/salesman, one who will fetch the highest price. There is no honor in memory, he insists. Only in wealth.

Mark Ruffalo, as Vincent Franz, and Danny Devito as Gregory Solomon in Arthur Miller’s The Price . (Photo by Joan Marcus)

The appraiser Gregory Solomon (Danny DeVito). is a possible agent of change not unlike Willy Wonka . Solomon, like Willy, is a purveyor of goods and seems to be out to take advantage of the honest man. But, like Wonka, Solomon appreciates the younger man’s honesty and his integrity. In the end, he enables Victor to keep his integrity, to remain faithful to his way of life. Victor will retain his Name. In an Arthur Miller play, the name is all.

It would be tempting to liken the productions on other levels. Danny DeVito,for example, making his Broadway debut, seems to have taken a few moves from Christian Borle’s play book. His Solomon is a Vaudeville version of Borle’s Commedia-based Wonka; both milk physical presence to augment the humorous irony of their characters. But that’s not the point.

We live in an era when most of us feel like Dahl’s intended audience. We are all “on their knees,” looking up at the giant fist of oligarchic power. Too many of us know what it is to be derided, as Victor is, for being satisfied with remaining in the economic middle class. We’ve felt the ridicule that Charlie endures for being poor. What makes both The Price and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory so satisfying is that their heroes stand in and up for us.  They show the world that right is might in all the ways that matter.

Christian Borle as Willy Wonka, in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, now playing on Broadway (photo Courtesy of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre).

Best of all, neither Victor nor Charlie has lost his way. Neither has given in to the pressure to embrace the attitudes of those who perceive the un-rich as “losers.” Both have retained an innocence and a positivity that enables them to revel in their successes. By being good, honest people, they believed they would prevail. And despite encountering others whose greed and pride could undermine them, they do.

 

 

Nigel Bray’s Pride and Joy

Mr. Lucky’s subject and author Nigel Bray

Recently, a dear friend asked me to review Nigel Bray’s memoir Mr Lucky.  I admire my friend, value her sensibilities, and agreed to do so.  It’s not a book I would ever have chosen to critique.  But writing a book is a huge accomplishment that deserves to be acknowledged.  So here are my thoughts about Mr. Bray’s brave adventure.

The book is not a polished piece of literature.  Nor does it claim to be.  It’s a story.  Often harrowing. It’s the kind of true story we hear all too often.  It’s the story of growing up gay and seeking self-acceptance.  Yet another account of how society demoralizes and how important it is for each of us to become our own saviors.

Bray is a forthright narrator, which makes him immediately reliable.  His voice rings clearly without self-pity.  Bray has assembled the pieces of his life into a meandering memoir that entertains and at turns enlightens.  This is a man who chose apt role models and then evolved.  He is his own hero, a man whose life and book are achievements I applaud.

I will leave the final word to the Amazon tag, which says of the book:

I will leave you with what the Amazon tag says about the book:

This is the story of Mr. Lucky – a misnomer if there ever was one! Follow him from him being a spoilt brat, a nascent homo, a fledgling pooflet and drama queen, on his adventures through school and College, to living in London through the madness and the sadness of the crazy 80s, during which he finds the perfect opportunities to find himself – and discovers he was right all along! G.A.Y.! FANTABULOSA! Disaster follows disaster, japes go wrong, relationships fail (mostly because he’s a fool and doesn’t know his arse from his elbow), friends die and everything’s awful. So he returns home, to Cornwall: new life, new house, new job – but same old heap of trouble. You’d think he’d learn from past mistakes, but….. Skipping through the detritus of broken hearts, a terrible thing happens and his life changes forever and Three Tall Women, each their various ways, get him through. And then, finally, after the most awful thing imaginable, the Man in the Big Red Shoes appears and he finally walks out into the light. Mr. Lucky IS lucky, after all. We do like a happy ending…..

 

How Can We Not Resist? (reprinted from Medium.com)

Photo by Aylan Kurdi

Photo by Aylan Kurdi

That photo. The Syrian baby lying face down in the water.

I can’t bear to look at it, yet I cannot look away. That beautiful child, so like children I have loved, so very like my own grandchild now living in a faraway land, who will never feel welcome in her parent’s homeland.

As the child of immigrants, who would not exist had my family not figured out how to circumvent the ban on refugees in 1939 that deemed Poles too dark, too swarthy to be admitted, especially if they were Jews, how can I not abhor the implications of that photo? How can I not scream murder, now that the Predator-in-Chief has exercised his Executive Privilege and has broken the law by banning refugees from seven countries, including Syria, whose people are being massacred and cannot stay where they are.

In school, the lessons we learned in Civics classes taught us that America was not only the land of the free and home of the brave but also the land of Checks and Balances. We have three branches of government so that no one branch becomes too powerful. Why is the judiciary allowing this flagrant law breaking to happen? Why is the Legislature not standing up for the laws they have enacted?

It is clear that it is up to us, The People to demand that our Union be treated with respect. We cannot accept the abuse, cannot allow the current state of affairs to become normalized. We must defy this executive order that, like the other 44 that have been ramrodded through in the past ten days, defies understanding. And this executive order is the one that is the most indefensible thus far.

Because this order sets a precedent. It paves the way for more heinous implications. It puts every one of us in jeopardy though it is being advertised as a measure to protect us from interlopers. In truth, it is a measure to divide us, to terrify us, to make us look for bogeymen in our closets, under our beds, next door, in our communities.

And in time, it will allow each of us to be banned in our turn.

The bare truth is that not one American has ever been killed by anyone from any of the seven banned countries. Even 9/11, which was one of the few acts of violence enacted on American soil by outsiders, was not perpetrated by anyone from any country on the banned list. It was orchestrated almost openly, defiantly, by Jihadists in Saudi Arabia, a country with whom the Bushes were accused of colluding, a country with whom the Trump Koch oligarchs who want to strangle America have deep financial ties, a country saliently not included on the ignominious list. The countries listed are homes to some of the poorest, neediest, most endangered souls on this earth.

There is a pattern here, part of the pattern being woven domestically. The Oligarchy is moving toward hording all our resources. It will eliminate the poor and the working poor and the middle class by putting health care and assistance and ample education out of our reach. And it will circle the wagons to keep the poor out and let only the wealthy in

Yet Americans buy the Kool-Aid, drink it willingly, feel grateful that they are being protected from some encroaching danger that is aiming its slings and arrows at the core of our existences. It’s easy to stick the Muslims out. So many of us don’t comprehend who they are, what they represent, what they believe. Propoganda is powerfully effective, the sugar that sweetens our sadder realities.

Terrorism by Muslims makes up less than one-third of one percent of all murders in this country. A far greater percentage are the result of domestic violence, violence that this administration would like to decriminalize.

This same administration will make it increasingly impossible for gun safety laws to be enacted. Your neighbor’s middle-aged aunt in Somalia who needs a heart transplant may be blocked from entry to our country, but guns being transported from illegal points of distribution worldwide are under no such scrutiny. Any angry husband almost anywhere in America can find a way to get a gun to kill his family.

The current nominee for Secretary of Education suggests we need guns in schools to protect our children from grizzly bears though she cannot have possibly missed the fact that not one single child has been massacred in a grizzly bear attack. Many have, however, been cut down in far more grizzly attacks by disgruntled white teenagers or white supremacists or locally disenfranchised misfits, for whom assault weapons are easier to obtain than Twizzlers.

No single school at any level in any community of any part of this country has been attacked by terrorists from anywhere abroad. But since a heavily armed, sociopathic teen gunned down twenty six- and seven-year-olds plus six of their care givers and teachers, gun violence in schools continues its steady rise.

Somehow, it has become okay for white psychopaths to terrorize our families, but it’s not okay for the huddled masses to seek refuge in the arms of Lady Liberty.

Most shocking to me is that there is a faction of pseudo-religious zealots, who call themselves pro-lifers cheering for these Draconian measures, trumpeting their approval, insisting that our resistance should be put down. They claim to advocate for the unborn children who deserve to live.

How can this photo not move them to rise up against such blatant hypocrisy?

screen-shot-2017-01-29-at-12-06-44-pm

photo by Aylan Kurdi

 

 

 

 

 

Green Curry for Christmas (reprinted from Medium.com)

I’m Christmas-ing in Thailand this year, and it’s a relief to be away from what Americans call holiday cheer. At the risk of being accused of crusading against Christmas, I find the holiday, as it has evolved in the US, to be gruesome and overbearing. The real celebration for me is being removed from the ubiquity of obnoxiously perseverating Christmas song in every public space, omnipresent guilt-mongering in the guise of advertising, oppressive overlays of faux cheer, and incessant arguing over how to greet one another.

No one has stopped me in the street to say, “Merry, er, happy, er . . .” Few even know that there’s a holiday going on out there. In Bangkok, except for the occasional paean to the Capitalist Christmas in the form of a display of goods for sale and a few saliently out-of-place reminders, there are few Christmas accouterments at all. It’s like Calvin Trillin’s observation that Christmas in Tibet would be a “place where folks cannot remember/That there is something special in December”(“Christmas in Qatar,” The New Yorker, 19 December,1994).

Absent is the apparent outpouring of hyperbolic Christmas spirit. Even though this is a cosmopolitan city, with strong ties to the West, a large Christian presence, and a decidedly multi-cultural persona, including a huge contingent of expatriated Americans, Germans, Belgians, Russians, et al, one is hard pressed to find reminders that joy has suddenly descended on an otherwise morose world.

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Christmas Eve, Lumpini Park, and not a Santa Claus or Christmas elf in sight (Photo by Stockton)

Some might attribute the absence of Christmas to the fact that Bangkok is 2,000 miles closer to the equator than is New York City, and December is a very hot month. Every time I emerge from an air-conditioned space, I feel like Tom Hanks’ character in Volunteers, descending from his plane into this country. “My God,” he moans. “We must be about a mile from the sun!”

But having lived in the Arizona desert for many years and having spent a few holiday seasons in Florida, I know it’s not the climate that’s to blame. People dwelling in warm climes might pay some lip service to the fact that they can’t get into the Christmas spirit without snow, sultry wintry wind, and delectable fires burning in their family rooms’ fireplaces. But they’ve adapted. No matter what the climate, people who want to decorate for Christmas will find ever more elaborate ways to deck their cacti – or palm trees, boats or sand castles – with boughs of holly and whatever else they can think of to connote the season. In Thailand, however, the landscape is bereft of palm trees disguised as Tannenbaums, of neon MERRY CHRISTMAS signs twinkling out of store windows.

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Amazing. Not a single Monitor Lizard wearing antlers! (Stock photo)

But while there is no outpouring of zealotry for the trappings of Christmas, people here are eager to honor one another’s traditions. Among those people educated in the ways of The Other, there is a genuine attempt to honor the fact that some do celebrate a very important holiday on December 25.

In the lobby of my hotel the proprietors have chosen an mp3 loop to play endless celebrity covers of every Christmas song imaginable, and on the screen, a slide show of snow-covered New England and old England scenes that seem odd, out of context, dislocated. But the intent is sweet. Every staff member greets every western looking guest with a heart-felt “Merry Christmas.” But they don’t worry about offending me for not saying Happy Chanukah; they really are unaware that there is such a thing, and I would not expect it. I am touched that they wish me happy anything.

hideous-christmas-dec

Luckily, there are not a lot of Christmas displays in Bangkok, but they are not entirely absent. Photo by Stockton.

I doubt they’ll wish anyone a happy Kwanza, and certainly not because they are anti-Kwanza. There simply are no African-Americans staying here. Yet, I am sure that if there were or if a major Muslim holiday happened concurrently, they would be offering their best wishes with some customary acknowledgment, the equivalent of Merry Christmas. And when the time is right, they probably greet celebrants of Vesak or Diwali with appropriate greetings. There is no reluctance to call the day what it is, no fear of offending.

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The Chinese Pavilion in Lumpini Park, Bangkok, like the other temples and memorials, are devoid of Christmas accoutrements.

On Christmas Eve, in that same lobby, I returned from an outing to find banana muffins laid out on a table in front of a sign scrawled in a childlike cursive that said, “Free. Merry Christmas.” I smiled at the desk clerk and bowed with my hands together to show my gratitude in the Thai way. She grinned back at me, bowing and likewise holding her hands together, saying, “Christmas cake. Very good.”

I asked the clerk if she celebrates Christmas. “Oh, no,” she said. “New Year only.”

I have never been a fan of the flap over what to say in the holiday season. It’s absurd, at least. Christmas is a specific day, and on that day to say Merry Christmas seems totally appropriate, especially in our country, which has designated Christmas a national holiday. To wish Happy Holidays on that day, seems as absurd as wishing someone a Merry Christmas the day after Thanksgiving, when many holidays approach.

We could take a lesson from my hosts here in Bangkok. If we embrace each day and call it what it is, if we honor our collectivity by understanding that Happy Holidays is all-inclusive, we show our respect for one another, for the individual attributes that make each of us a person. We acknowledge our differences while accentuating our common humanness.

What can be bad about that?

See Me, Brother*

adam-clayton-powell-monument-dr-martin-luther-king-jr-boulevard-harlem-cw14nn

A brother stopped me on the street Saturday.

I was headed east, across 125th Street, toward the Metro-North station, waiting at the light on Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd, when the man gently grabbed my arm and pointed me toward the group of Black Israelites handing out leaflets. On a milk crate, in the center of the group, a muscular young man dressed in a flamboyant imitation of the Biblical coat of many colors, shouted angrily into his amped-up mic.

“You really need to hear this,” my would-be Virgil whispered harshly without letting go of my arm.

It sounded like a threat. But I listened anyway. For as long as I could stand it.

“ Look around you, white man. See what you have done, you bitches and whores. These people are the sons and daughters of the slaves you persecuted. . . . you should feel ashamed. You should be consumed with guilt.”

Virgil stared at me and tightened his grip as I grunted and attempted to walk away.

“There is much to learn here, “ he insisted.

I nodded, and just as gently as he had grasped me, I pried his fingers off my arm and went on my way, shaking my head.

He was right. There was much to learn here, for all of us. But the lessons should not be about guilt. I could recite a litany of the myriad ways guilt has plagued me all my life, but guilt is irrelevant here. Except that I have learned all too well that guilt is destructive, and promoting guilt will do nothing to close the chasm that divides our union. To heal our country’s cancerous racism, we need to stand together, to learn to know one another, and guilt will only drive us further apart.

Besides, I am not guilty. I am responsible, yes. But my responsibility is to build cohesion, to encourage unity. I am not responsible for the actions of those who came long before me, reprehensible as they were. I am responsible to teach my students, to lead my grandchildren, to show my compatriots what I know about communion and cooperation. I eschew the condescension of tolerance, model equanimity. I care deeply that we humans treat one another with respect, kindness, empathy. But I am not to blame for those invading, marauding Europeans, who raped and ravaged Native and African Americans.

Since, to my knowledge, I wasn’t around in the bad old days of colonization, I hope that if some other iteration of myself was, she would have stood up against the forces of evil, would have argued for peaceful coexistence with the indigenous people, would have shared rather than stolen the land. And I hope that that earlier entity would have fought to abolish slavery, resisted the lynch mobs, fought for human rights, argued for true equality, made art or some contribution toward the effort to humanize — a notion nowhere near the same as to civilize — this country.

I am proud to say that my great-grandfather Hiram H. Terwilliger eagerly enlisted in the Union Army in 1861, long before the draft was imposed in 1863. He was already 27 by then, old enough to let younger men go ahead of him, and he was a Knickerbocker, a privileged member of the landed gentry with plenty of resources to buy a surrogate to serve for him. But he believed in the cause, abhorred slavery, had no patience for the abomination of white supremacy. He reenlisted after his first term and fought valiantly at the Second Battle of Bull Run, only allowing himself to be mustered out of service after he nearly died. In fact, old Hiram made medical history because of his foolhardy bravery. A minié ball split the bone of his left leg before it lodged itself on the outer side, and he kept fighting until, according to the surgeons who attended him, he was “struck again by a round bullet on the left side of his chest.” That bullet passed through him, grazing his lungs and liver, and left him miraculously in tact. Twice he was placed on the pile of corpses and would have been burned had he not groaned; he somehow managed to beat the odds by surviving yellow fever, sepsis and several surgeries without benefit of anesthesia, and then he returned to Ellenville, where, as a lay minister in his Dutch Reformed community, he preached for peaceful reconstruction and for universal voting rights till he died in 1920, at age 87.

While great Grandfather Terwilliger was fighting with Johnny Reb, my mother’s grandfathers, living in opposite corners of the Ukraine, were staving off Cossacks, defending their young sons from mandatory conscription and their daughters from molestation. To escape pogroms, both families migrated East to Poland’s Pale of Settlement. One of my great grandfathers was a rabbi, who stayed in Poland but sent both his male and female children to the university in Austria, and the other was an inn keeper, who dodged the Russians, rested in Warsaw, and eventually ran a hotel in Vienna. Surely neither of them or any of their forebears contributed to the travesty of early America.

I blanche whenever I hear myself called out for being White. I am no more responsible for the unfortunate accident of my color than is my black sister. I understand my privilege — though as a single woman nearing 70, who must work to survive, I have lost much of it — but am not ashamed. If anything, my color has made me more aware of what I can do, must do to eradicate intolerance. The color of my skin impels me to speak out, to rebuke hatred, to defend the rights of all. But it does not make me hang my head in embarrassment.

A student asked me last month if there could be such a thing as racism against whites. “If you hate me for the color of my skin,” I replied, “you are as racist as if I hate you for the color of yours. It’s that simple. Does that answer your question?”

How dare you, young man, make an assumption about me just because I am white? Would you not take offense were I to make an assumption about you just because you are dark? And what do you know about me? How do you presume to know my history? When I shake your hand, I have no preconceived notions. Why do you insist on harboring them as you refuse to shake mine?

We can work together to make police brutality go away, to promote equal rights and achieve the understanding that will stop the madness around us. But we can’t if you insist on labeling me and rejecting my sisterhood.

Truth is, you need me as much as I need you.

Those haters you think I’m one of? They have as much disdain for me as they do for you, and we can only beat them if we join hands and do it together.

*Reprinted from Medium.com

My Pledge of Allegiance We’re Still Here

“The white tape works for roommates but not for patriots.  America needs us now more than ever.  Don’t ever let them forget WE’RE STILL HERE. ” Bill Maher 11 Nov 2011

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All over Facebook I see people writing things like, “This will help” as introduction to a posting about how the “real” Donald Trump won’t do any of the things he threatened during the campaign. “He was just campaigning,” they say. “The REAL Trump is not that guy. It’s okay. We’ll be fine.”

It doesn’t help. At all.

In fact, it just makes things worse to know that in order to gain power, Trump fed a hunger for hatred and encouraged the ingestion of bigotry that caused the great belly of this country to spew forth a mandate that normalizes misogyny, sexual assault, anti-LGBTQ behavior, racism, and exclusion.

It is NOT okay, and it’s not going to be okay if we accept the soporific that the “real Donald” is a better man than that.

All the disclaimer proves once again is that Trump is a con man, a demagogue, an inveterate opportunist, and he will continue to sell his snake oil, to poison the atmosphere with lies and empty promises until his supporters, his soldiers and slaves, awake and see him for what he is: stark, raving naked. But that will take time because having drunk the Kool-Aid, the minions of deplorables, who voted this man in, are infected with the absolute conviction that they are now in command, that their man will make them great, that they will defeat the insidious factions that seek to destroy them, and it will be a good long while before they realize that they, in fact, are their own worst enemies.

Trump is not a new phenomenon. Nor is he a surprise. Plato warned us of him in The Republic, Book VIII. No fan of the common man – he referred to the populace as a great beast – Plato argued that Democracy instills a lust for absolute freedom, a concept most are not equipped to understand. The people, he suggested, will inevitably assume that the democracy entitles every man to expect to get exactly what he wants, in material goods and individual rights. But the reality is that there will be inequities, and those inequities will increase as the rich get richer , and the poor are disempowered; the democrats will seek to placate the masses by stealing from the rich, and the poor will grow impatient, feeling increasingly disenfranchised as their dreams become ever more elusive. Then, says Pluto, the great beast will elect “a violent and popular leader,” whose power will grow as he fans his people’s fears by making them distrust one another, fueling suspicions of iconoclasts of any kind. He will tax the citizenry to fund his substantial army and his schemes for world domination, and he will trust no one while relying on criminals to do his bidding. Those henchmen will collude with him to enact crimes against the democrats who elected him. It is, then, the responsibility of the thinkers, the compassionate, the artists in a society to hold the mirror up to the nature of the state they are in and engender revolution.

Of course, it doesn’t help to know that Plato predicted this anymore than that Trump may not have meant what he expounded. Naturally, he was playing a character for the purpose of rallying the people, and Plato simply gives us a historical perspective. But it sure isn’t reassuring to realize that Trump has successfully painted himself into a corner where he must make good his campaign promises.

What does help is to know that there are armies of sentient sensate people out there, who will make sure we do not go gently into that dread night of total darkness that history warns is possible. We have a window of opportunity to avert the worst, and I know for a fact that there are more who disdain what has happened than those who rejoice, and in our numbers is the strength to prevail.

So, it’s not okay, but it could be. Eventually.

I have, over the years, kept in touch with scores of my students, many of whom are now approaching or are well into their forties. They are bringing up their children with deeply humanistic values, are setting an example for the millennials to follow. In their multivarious roles, they are provoking thought, are reconstituting our intellectual infrastructures, making differences.

When I returned to earn a second Master’s Degree in Fine Arts, I sat at tables with some of the finest writers and poets and playwrights and actors and visual artists I will ever have the honor to meet, and I heard them speak, read their words, experienced their work. I have faith in these young people, most of them millennials, and I know they will carry on, will pledge their talents to keeping the country awake, to reminding us all that we must not be silent, must eschew complacency, must be unafraid to remain committed to the fight that only began in the awful campaign of 2016.

Now, in fact, the fight has escalated. Truth is, we are again engaged in a great Civil War, testing and being tested. If we are to endure, we must choose to stand up and take a side, must commit to preventing the miasma from enveloping us, from defeating us, from suffocating us.

Like so many others, I have of late been stultified by the cataclysm I awoke to on November 9. But I need to reanimate. As a woman and as a woman who has experienced sexual assault and harassment, as a first generation American, as a Jew, as the sister of a beloved man who loves men, as a teacher in the CUNY system where most of my students are considered “others,” as friend to so many iconoclasts of all shapes and sorts, as the mother and grandmother of powerful, brilliant women, I am appalled.

But it’s not over till the diva sings her last, and I hear no America singing the heroine’s dying declarations. Rather, I hear bells ringing nationwide, and they are tolling for me and for thee.

It’s not okay.

But wall is not yet lost. We can still win by working to make sure that within the next four years the siege of terror comes to a halt. We can still win by acting in a way that proves that MOST Americans welcome others into our midst and value all contributions, by standing up to bullies. We can reject the notion that only losers need help and reach out to bring comfort to the hungry and the sick. We can lobby for better health care and universal insurance, for the environment; we can educate the masses about carbon footprints, about the ethical, responsible treatment of our earth and all its creatures, including our fellow man. Et cetera. There is no end to what we can and must do, what we must do together.

Together, most importantly, we must insulate ourselves from hatred by refusing to abhor the representatives of evil that seek to subjugate us; they must be shown that they cannot own us. By being unafraid, by insisting on turning our other cheek, not in submission but in defiance, we retain our power over ourselves, and we win.

They will go low. That’s a given, but that’s okay.   Because we will go high.