Friday, October 23, 2015

El Chapo: The Other Side of the Equation

In a recent pronouncement about Mexico, Donald Trump rattled a new cage, right at our doorstep on the Arizona-Sonora border. As a candidate for the highest office in the land, Trump pulled out his six-gun in one hand and his boxing gloves in the other, and offered up a New York high rise version of “plata o plomo”. This orange hair gringo challenged Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, a brand new, recently escaped tunnel artist and up-to-date Twittering Mexican version of Columbia’s Don Pablo Escobar; he’s known in English as “Shorty” by American latinos who prefer it. Guzman’s people, his “operatives”, in military parlance, inhabit the neighborhoods on both sides of the border. He is the new reality, and much like Donald Trump, El Chapo brings his own show  .  The stage is being set and reset with every passing day, and the tunnel escape stories circulate as fast as the Trump piñatas. Important as The Donald is for the silent majority north of the border, impassable walls, Republicans and 99 percent of American politics and politicians don’t mean shit down here. Yet sometimes that one remaining percent can rarely catch a 99 percent attention span, especially when it comes from Trump. All should know by now: Donald doesn’t make a reservation at the restaurant. He has the whole place bought when he wants to make insults, and no one who likes to eat there should feel excluded from the invited group. He serves all fares for all appetites, and he doesn’t care if you show or not. He leaves an empty seat for you. You just might be the meal.

Guzman got the message. As noted, Trump came from the one percent, and at dinner with the press he mentions the man from Sinaloa, saying he would “kick his ass” if he became President.  Mr. Trump has supposedly reached ten billion, so if you’re living on the other side of the equation and received an invitation, perhaps arriving in the truly beautiful city of Culican, Sinaloa, as you are approaching your first billion or so, having escaped twice because you know how to  build a half mile tunnel and get all obstacles out of your way, well, how would you respond? Probably like Guzman did. He rose out of the ground and tweeted to the false prophet and high rise Jesus, his new rival. El Chapo like The Donald, likes to use Twitter, and he sent the message promising to make him “eat his words”. The death threat was not implied; it was pretty much explicit in a second 160 byte delivery. Who would have ever imagined Twitter being the new courier of communications between a bandit and a maybe-to-be president? 
It would not be too hard to imagine what kind of Secret Service briefing followed somewhere up in one of the Trump towers after that pronouncement. They probably swept the room first. Thankfully, no one living escapes that event when the black suits arrive.

Characteristically, high level public political gangster-like challenges are grist for the news mill up north. But unlike the Mexican press, which draws different do-not-cross lines, American news executives like to keep reporters healthy.  There are enough American newsmen – and women - missing in the Mideast already. 

But this time, in Mexico, where violence and threats are so common they are rarely printed or shown or even known, the Trump-Guzman firefight swept in through Sonora like a fire in the wind, spreading emotional dust devils through the ejidos and pueblos throughout the desert with the velocity of and intensity of a cruise missile. Figuratively speaking (though I would not be surprised if it really occurred), the Trump piñatas were now being hit by gunfire, not kids sticks, then burned. You really have to hand it to Donald. First he laid waste to the entire presidential lineup, sparing only one socialist escapee for now, then he aims and hits all Mexican immigrants (save a few “good ones” now and then), and all to get the ubiquitous following of millions just south of the border. Twitter Like or Don’t Like, thumbs up or down, THE Donald Trump hits all his targets, and perhaps too well, as it is likely he may now be considering limiting the breath of any possible unnecessary future damage he may inflict. If so, he has made a wise decision. 

Regarding the Mexican thing, with some effort, even exerted by a multi-billionaire, they can be understood, and once understood, all the strangeness disappears. It’s truly amazing but, as they say, by the grace of God, Mexicans don’t go out of their way to make gringos suffer the way so many Americans have done as they clap in unison for government officials who quite properly take their official orders seriously, ignoring the noise, the protests, all to deport them pronto, when all most of them really need is a job. Oh, for the pain of living in that glass house and having to see all those “illegals” down the street. But that aside, it should be old news to the whiners that the George W Bush housing bubble burst years ago, in 2008-09, and with came the beginnings of remigration and the end to the extended and illegal stays of millions of Mexicans who were building them. Over these years, most returned south, leaving the illegal crossings north for less troublesome people like drug smugglers and cartel assassins. Not as many are crossing though, so perhaps Washington can take solace in that. The rest of the "always illegal", they still stay in the shadows.

So the firefight is on hold for now, and except for some humor by Mad Magazine, which posted a poster of  a boxing match between the two (“El Chapo vs El Crappo”), not much more has been said of the high level verbal altercation. The missile hit, and people scattered, but the blast fizzled. More to the point, people went back to daily life.

On occasion, it might surprise people in high rise environments that the rest of the world remains still living. For the part of the 99 percent that remain here, it is still all about the forever-Mexican family structures and of course, speculation about what kind of life “El Chapo” Guzman Loera will bring to the border state. With a sigh, an ex-comisario told me recently, “there’s no law now”. ” 

“So do you think it’s better or worse?” I asked. “It’s better now. I like the soldiers, but they polluted the air.” 

The plazas are now secure, and the “plaza” is not a Mexican town square; it’s an agreement, an errant traffic stop, a point of entry or departure, a "piso",  a point of unwritten law – any or all of the above.

President Pena Nieto is running the republic, and Calderons’ soldiers and their regular Sonoran street stops and battles already seem a distant memory. The soldiers have all but disappeared, along with the interior customs stops (aduanas), all of which have boarded their doors and put up the CERRADO sign. The Bush boom and bubble has long since burst in Arizona, and the exodus began then and continues. It’s a remigration from “el otro lado”, (the common Mexican reference to that distant land north, “the other side”). The movement back south is right out of the Wizard’s imagination: they exit old E. Pluribus Unum with a quick pack up of the pickup and with the turn of the key, a self-cross and firm tap on the accelerator, they start the just-click-your-heels voyage on wheels from Mi Apartamento, OZ, USA, to Mi Pueblo, Kansas, Mexico. This new repast is bound to stay on our plate for a while. Goodbye Estados Unidos, bienvenidos, Mexico. You can almost hear Walter Kronkite in the background, signing off. “And that’s the way it is, folks”.

More people are coming back every day, but less every day. The remigration has almost run its course. Some pueblos have doubled and even nearly tripled population in these years. It is the same throughout all the Sierra Madres. The rural life is still quiet and simple. Sometimes it’s more dangerous than it ever was during Calderon’s time. Soldiers and hit men were in constant battle throughout the republic for the entire six years of Calderon’s presidency.  Despite that, the new Pena Nieto formula has generally taken hold, even if not universally well received. With PRI back in power, people hope, maybe things will settle a little. An occasional local bumper sticker sometimes drives around Agua Prieta, a border town of Douglas, Arizona, which says “Enrique Pena Nieto is NOT my President”, but other than that, there is little public display of consternation with the new political and physical reality since the 2012 elections. 

We have gone back to the future, and like the Delorean return to a parking lot, it’s a recurring event . This massive remigration is leaving only irony in its wake up north: if things keep going this way, many millions from Boston to Sacramento may begin their exit without any politician ever having to deliver on grandiose promises to build the wall. Nothing like a poor, weird economy coupled with willful ignorance and finely veiled racism to help working people head for the exits. This time, the Mexicans are headed back south, whether they’ve been gone for a few days or a decade. 

Even so, Trump and Guzman have one thing in common. They like peace better than discord, and they both hate complexity. Neither is above shooting up the place when things don’t go their way. 

But that is where they part ways. Like his Columbian predecessor, El Chapo speaks with far less intensity than he listens, but when he does, he’s Trump without the bravado. Unless Trump says he wants to kick his butt. That kind of quip, of course, coming from someone with a mop that looks woven from some orange horse hairs from the ejido, gets even a normally quiet billionaire escapee hot under the collar. But generally, the biggest cartel leaders are not given to shouting or histrionics. They let the politicians do that, because that is what they do best.

Sunday is a busy day down here in the local pueblo, and that’s really the only day you can find anyone around town. Almost everyone works (around Sonora, now) the rest of the time. One recent Sunday recently came sandwiched between the American Labor Day celebration and the Mexican Day of Independence. That’s manna for a Mexican family. To the working class, that kind of calendar makes a great “puente”, or grand bridge, not too far but long enough, which when stretched, means a whole week off work for American Latino families lucky enough to escape Arizona to see their families here.

That Sunday I sat with my friend Ramon Angel, across from his business on the two-lane federal highway at the “salida” of town, its southern “point of departure” to Moctezuma. In front of us sits a speed bump that is big enough to warn all traffic to brake or risk breakdown, but everyone clogging the road that day knew it was there. Ramon and I talked like sentries while the traffic slowed and mostly smiled and occasionally frowned, usually waving and sometimes hollering something good as they passed. Some came circling back on our watch, maybe to take a second look at the gringo in shorts. I knew more people than I care to admit, and Ramon knew a lot more. Even with all the traffic, noise, conversation and trash there’s no doubt I feel at home.

There is admittedly a precarious balance. A few months ago, on a quiet weekday, a few sicarios - hit men - grabbed a couple people a few yards from where we sat, and they disappeared. Perhaps they lived, perhaps not. Everyone around knows. It never made the news out of Hermosillo, a three-hour drive from these mountains. News comes by satellite, eventually, but in Mexico neighbors actually know each other and talk a lot. News travels fast in pueblos, the way it used to up north in small towns, a century ago. You don’t have to wait or wonder whether some reporter will show up. It won’t be on Facebook. But you will hear about it, most likely sooner than later. It’s nice that way. Computer knowledge not required.

Up in Tucson, you could walk the dog down the street and still not know someone recently got murdered on the street corner near the huge mesquite where Rover stops to relieve his bladder. The television truck cams came loaded with the closest crime reporter. Maybe a helicopter passed to film the scene. And some police spokesperson was interviewed and made an important comment with a phone number to call. But you missed the News at 6 that night, and the Arizona Star never got read that day either. So that might be the end of it, and no one gets caught, but that’s the way things work up north. Unless it’s big news, like when Rep. Gabby Giffords got shot and the world gets to know in a few minutes (as I did from Armed Forces Television while waiting to embark a helicopter in Iraq at the time), we usually forget it happened, even if we didn’t miss the news.

Not here in Sonora. Everyone who breathes finds out. And yet, it usually doesn’t make the news. Unless there is an inescapably major crime such as the one involving 45 students who quite possibly were incinerated down south at a military post, there is little to no coverage, no report, and very little law. There are still the federales, but they are now left to fend for themselves, and with Calderon’s exit, all the “Mordidas, No” (No Bribes) signs have come down at the border aduana stations. So the inevitable result is that the underpaid police force has to find ways to get extra money on their own. The last sight of customs is at the border, and the interior stops are closed, but no one does much speeding anymore; that is a sure stop if the vehicle is more than a few years old. But there are now only rare stops for military inspections; during Calderon’s tenancy of the presidency, the wait could be an hour or more. That’s the silver lining for the new law, the new way. Laws have changed, and people adjust. It’s like the DeLorean landing back to the future parking lot. At first you have to get accustomed to how it was, then was no more, and now is again. For those living here, it’s already sunk in. We’re Back To The Future.

An Arizona friend and Vietnam Vet used to live near here, about 35 miles due south, on a path flown by many veritable and noisy crows. It’s 120 miles by car. He lived in El Novillo, a gringo fishing community on a reservoir - designed by Hitler’s engineers - where the biggest bass in the world was once caught but skinned and filleted before the Mexican netters found out that a famous rich bass fisherman with a TV show in the US had offered a standing offer of a million dollars for such a capture. 

My friend doesn't mince words with anyone. That came from Vietnam where they left him for dead in an outpost in Cambodia while Nixon announced to the world there were no US troops there. He was directed back to safety by the son of a Montagnard chief who had befriended him earlier in his tour. That Vietnamese native tribal son saved his life, and he has never forgotten.

“George, you know, they gotta have some kinda rule down there; if the criminals do it better, fine by me." That summary finds an unexpected echo in the thinking of the vast majority of ejiditarios, businessmen, teachers, farmers and other Mexicans, as well as the relatively few gringos still living here.

So without law here anymore, many ask, what did we used to have? Most answer their own question. It was Calderon’s war, all of it.  But in the six Calderon years, the remote pueblos up north were never actually home to the hit men; they would drive into border towns in droves in Hummers and homemade tanks to their missions, in and hopefully out, like soldiers on a kill, just like they did in 2006, just a few weeks after Calderon took office.

In that battle, many were killed, but 25 of the sicarios who survived the firefight at a mountaintop ranch near Arizpe fled over the mountains from Calderon’s helicopters and rappelling soldiers. Everyone locked their doors for a week; no child was to be found in the street. The hit men were all eventually captured, many still clad in their Iraqi style desert uniforms. Most were looking for a cell phone recharge card at a TelCel store. Ammunition is not available at every street corner. When we saw them in the news, they looked more like a bruised lot of young toughs than trained killers. A lot of my Mexican friends got a good laugh from that, but they had already forgotten that these people had executed five cops in Cananea, blasting their faces beyond recognition. Cananea, nearby the border, is the sister city of Sierra Vista, home to Fort Huachuca, the intelligence hub of the Defense Department. It’s quite a balancing act, loving this country, this distant land, Mexico. But it’s always easy, nevertheless. It defies explanation.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

You're on TV! Don Pablo, El Chapo, The Donald

Never a doubt in 1974: Drugs were on the rise; so were high rises. And Don Pablo knew his world, as did The Donald.  But all the time the third actor was opaque, waiting in the wings. Somewhere between the illegal Columbian marijuana fields and behind the towering building glass of New York City, the young upstart took his seat at every meeting, every table, every cocaine tent. The television tube had become a common bond, redacted from view but yet wholly visible by virtue of a corporate wand, and especially so if you had color coming from the tube. In that great undefined space between Medellin, Columbia and New York City, New York, United States, pretty much all of the rest of the masses of livelihoods of western humanity were residing outside the matrix. Finally, unknowingly, they accepted the fact slow learners might be the dream audience for all future shock. Surely it was to come.

Two thousand four hundred miles south of New York City in Medellin, Columbia – about the same distance from New York City where Santana and The Eagles were playing out west, Pablo Escobar was gazing out beyond the mountains of his native Medellin. The world looked like his pretty nickel, and that seemed too easy for the narco-genius who had studied the new traffic and the traffickers, too. On the scale of future business, marijuana was just too heavy, and the return was far too light. The answer, he found, was cocaine. And with it came a whole new class of criminals. He learned about it all with the same fervor that young missionaries study the Bible. And as expected, and so reads the story, his mother loved him so much, so unconditionally. That helped a lot in Catholic Columbia. And at first, so did the "gracias" of many people he favored in Medellin and beyond. In the early days, bandito Don Pablo Escobar gave a lot away, without compunction, almost like his northern counterpart, developer The Donald Trump.

Standing by the door from the back of his fancy 1976 Cadillac limo which sported the NY plate “DJT”, the young Donald Trump – photographed for the New York Times - was definitely on the move. He was learning the game, and armed with the gospel three-line rectitudes from Norman Vincent Peales’ Power of Positive Thinking, he knew it wouldn't take long to be the master at it. Whatever that meant for him or for New York City, he was determined the future would happen his way. He knew building, and buildings. His father had taught him that. Everyone, sometimes, needs somebody.

Like the young Escobar, young Trump loved to throw his money around, as he still does. The finest form of corporate largesse rule the Trump tower suites, as donations to politicians like Bill and Hilary Clinton and the family “foundation” would roll in for decades – this one ostensibly in exchange for a wedding invitation.  And yet, in the 1970s, just for banking some cash from either, what lesser developer or politician might have thought it best to measure out exactly what might be extracted for the gifts?

Neither an astute politician nor criminal had to dream much beyond the latest project – a new building, a new drug route, because the new world of instant communications had not yet reared its head. Most politics was still truly local, and the internet was still just an emergency BBS board for ham operators. Who could really make sense of Nixon’s historic resignation, when it created such mass political confusion even as everyone seemed to be simultaneously exhaling and exalting his exit? Most of the political class was mired in the aftermath of Watergate, and not much was made sense from the rest, whether counted from the ranks of Nixon’s silent majority or among Spiro Agnew’s “radic-libs”. Even the boomer musicians had to argue Watergate in song. Neil Young belted out Southern Man and Lynyrd Skynyrd bellowed a harmonious, impious and irresistible chorus of Sweet Home Alabama. Most of the illicit generation, now referred to as "the boomers", (the one which of course followed "the greatest generation") acknowledged they were both pretty damn good songs when accompanied by a joint and a beer.

Back south in Columbia, Pablo Escobar was hard at work, unknowingly pushing himself into history books. He was just that big. By the latter days of his life, saints had already been begotten in holy ceremony in street side capillas and home altars for the recompense of his efforts. Verily, he was a narco who had to have others bury - literally dig and dump - tons of cash to keep it from the government. In a predictable conclusion, Don Pablo could not devise a tunnel or an army of pigeon carriers to take it with him, and his “vida loca” and his place in history books closed abruptly with a forgettable footnote about his violent death.

In a way, as I now look at it from a point southwest of New York erudition and argument, like mountain-dwelling criminals who dream big and never earn more than a lead bullet before any silver shows forth, these high rise developers who start with big visions rarely see their dreams last for long. Most developers forget their dreams hold expiration dates usually made real by courtroom visits, and they die a graceful slow death, but The Donald, the “The Great Exception”, the one who, by a certain belief system, may have inadvertently given a second true face to the current mythology dubbed “American Exceptionalism”, lived on. He lived not only through the 1970s and 1980s; he thrived well beyond it and continues to push himself forward with tweets from his office suite - this time perhaps with a reach far beyond a building (remember, they sometimes fall), right into venerable and sturdy rooms, ones weathered against time, the ones containing the history of American presidential politics. As a multi-billionaire, and even just as one of us, what more could Donald J. Trump ask for?

Even now, it isn't necessary to breathe in the Trump persona to understand what many still regard as just another over-played bit-part courier of historical footnotes. The real interest for now, if only for now, is in the unscripted, off-screen reality show he drags along to the camera and interview - the one I've been waiting for since Jack Kennedy died. In 1962, to ravenous eyes focused on a strange-looking black and white cathode ray tube of not much bigger than an iPad, the “Camelot” President was larger than life.

Also incubated in television’s developing years, Kennedy was a natural born user of it, and the symbiotic growth came concurrent with instructions that few needed to learn (aside from pesky antenna adjustments). But the potency of the tube was not lost on television executives who furiously set to define a new and important psychic numerology behind the new glass curtain of OZ: TV can control the politicians and make money at the same time.

Who would have known it would take over fifty years for the public to figure that out? After all, writer and ex-ad hawker, Jerry Manders had tried to advance a case to scrap television altogether in his 1973 book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, but his comprehensive work missed the elusive targets he intended. The masses of Americans, and by perfectly reasonable extension, humanity itself, were tube-bound. Who would want to think about turning it off when it had just come on? Come on.

The table was set for public consumption for the next half century, and the victuals were served like medicine to the masses. Until 2015. In spite of the nearly biblical proportion of change in the world of communications - perhaps even as fast as a rocket might divert off a set course from an expected trajectory – the control by some Master at OZ-making, that Hollywood airport controller who fell asleep at the switch, allowed the missile to veer off course, again. The event, if we might call it that, has, as if it had a conscious of its own, unwittingly graced Donald with the public with a fond thank you.

So even in spite of the dominatrix in the television debate sets, The Donald has loosened the chains and managed to make the rest of the politicians look like six-inch puppets at the county fair. They look like they’re dancing in the ruins of the American Realm as they debate on the always-on news channels. Trump is jerking the puppet strings at the same time he’s stuffing the Citizens United decision right up the place where the sun will not shine – sitting just above the stool where the puppets scurry-jump to scoop up their campaign cash.

So, 2015, it should be told, has been a bellwether year for Trump, Don Pablo and his contemporary Mexican boxing partner, Joaquin "El Chapo" (Shorty) Guzman, but above all, for television and the fourth estate. The biggest challenge for all the aforementioned, minus Pablo of course, remains dead ahead - but not yet to be seen - as it were.

The one-way, no-clicks allowed television industry has already survived a half century of challenges from two-way radio and the internet, so the future may be bright. If new actors of the old cathode ray can play a way to remake the county fair puppets into real life characters once again after the months of Trump destruction, well, politicians and even drug dealers will once again appear a little more like the rest of humanity, with useful ideas of greatness and misfortune and the like.

Perhaps the puppets in pixels will all be mixed, manipulated and melded together for the betterment of all humanity. Who knows? One thing's certain: it's the not so distant challenge which beckons the television executives. They are furiously scratching at the walls right now. It will not be an easy invention, but once done, it will not be the kind you can rush down to the Patent Office.

To be continued.....

Strong as Gravity: Christmas Is Coming

It's mid-October, 2015, and week ago a promise was made here not to mention religion - for at least another week. Well, week's up, and Christmas is coming, at least at a card store in Texas. In the back, behind the showroom and below the two-story shelving racks, crates of cute cards and pallets of other pleasant stuff of placid wisdoms and useful activity are arriving by the truckload. Above the unopened boxes filling the floor, the manager is balancing herself on the top shelf at second-story level, leaning over without the slightest hint of fear, arms open, waiting to have one of the part-time clerks pitch up the first of the lightest boxes from the cardboard bazaar below.

Iraq kicked into consciousness, once again. The manager's balancing act was clearly an improper yet admirable civilian effort to secure the floor from becoming the likeness of a wartime TOC (Tactical Operations Center) being primed in its infancy for operational support of an important upcoming strategic mission.

More to the point though, the image was disturbing because in a former lifetime I had once worn the hat of a proud union elevator constructor for 10 years. Gravity I know well. The subject is embedded in the physical psyche of anyone who in the course of a day's work might have the duty to walk an H-beam at 80 feet, chain-fall wrapped tightly over his shoulder, and lanyard securely attached to his waist, the target being an attachment point 12 feet down the beam, where ladder then meets worker who promptly ascends to the final destination 8 feet above, where it is wrestled off the shoulder and attached to the overhead. The whole of it, of course, is made possible by the human conveyance thus described.

It is in the recollection of such memories that I am fond to recall similar times when, more than once, my sturdy Catholic coworkers, who also worked often at elevated levels, and who, when challenged to go forth with similar daily missions, would observe a quick moment of silence accompanied by the total absence of body movement other than to self-cross properly before embarking. The rest was considered not much more than the mundane activity of a day in the life of an elevator constructor; of this, but not so much of Christmas, I speak with great affirmation as a SME (subject matter expert).

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Mister Lewis is an Essayist

Lewis H. Lapham is an essayist's icon. He is also a writer's nightmare, at least for some of us. In absentia, he'll turn you into a better writer, whether you think you can be, or not. And even more painful is the notion he can make a writer write essays. Essays? That's work. Oh for heaven's sake, be kinder that that.

He did and is just that to me. After reading Mr. Lewis, as I like to call him here at the ranchito, for a mere month or so, I'm addicted. The first piece I laid eyes on was "Imperial Masquerade", a book of essays which is, to be precise, extraordinary. He writes of the 1980s, arguably a decade bringing more mass confusion than had ever befallen the American public. He has it "down" - deciphered, demystified, and declassified, all in a compilation of essays about his victims whom he effortlessly pulls on to his delightfully large collection of skewers. No one living escapes, and if they're already dead, well, they're still meant to suffer. In a way, the entire book might be re-dedicated to his former and uncanny prescience, recently certified in his new article in Harper's, Bombast Bursting In Air, skewering the entire band of puppets and one billionaire, minus one socialist, running in the 2016 election, so far.  

Lewis is not only an incredible writer in every respect, and an essayist of immeasurable proportion, but arguably the best author of his generation still living in the United States. I'm still in a sort of wonderful, daily, continuing shock, even after only a month discovering him. Words have failed me until now. And it's still adoration time.

In absentia, Mr. Lewis has unwittingly seated me square in front my very own defining door to the structure of writing, the one I have searched for and circled around all my life. I never identified the opening, nor really examined the content, but he went up to it, dusted off the sign, and even knocked on it for me.

Now, at 67, I'm impatiently writing like an intern all day, with a break or two, especially in the early afternoon when age briefly catches my attention, and I hope there is surely more to come than a blog. But if this is it, that's OK too. I've been the jack of all trades, but that's not so interesting to me now. The last time I really did much real writing (other than 20 years of technical writing) was in 1995 after boarding up a small and lively Midwest weekly I started almost three years earlier in Mishawaka, Indiana. I liked the work, but it was a financial black hole. My newspaper and I were both subject to the Rule of Decline and Death, an economic tenet specified for all small newspapers that didn't have a hundred-year history. In other words, for rags and dummies like myself.

While Mr. Lewis' work has consumed my thoughts and nearly all my reading, above all it's finally forced my writing hand back to work, and this time I believe, in full concert with a brain. (The pen in hand, of course, has now doubled to ten pecking fingers).

You should know, by no surprise, Mr. Lewis has never heard of me. I'm actually glad of that, because I want to get the adoration out of my system as soon as possible. As a writer, I've never been one of the elected, nor one who ever submitted. The process is far too gruesome to even imagine, and even as I head out to the burn barrel (yes, it's allowed here, thankfully) with my How-to-Write and where-to-send-it and what-to-do-to-get-it-published books, I still care whether I've said anything at all after it's read. So against the wind I will be throwing my pixelated paper airplanes, scribblings, essay-like I hope, on to this little blog I started just a few days ago. 

My decision. I hope I don't regret it. If you come back and give me hell, it will be much appreciated, and if you say something nice, then I will probably try to be as nice as The Donald says he can be, especially when he is in his throw-around-the-money mode. I wish I could, but I don't have money to throw around to get readers. What is read will have to do.

In the meantime, the question is if you are not a member or associate of the Lapham-skewered group, and if you decide to read or even if you have read "Mister Lewis", how can you, provided you are a human, not love this man?


In the introduction to the 2014 winter issue of his quarterly magazine, Lapham's Quarterly, Lewis provides a personal account of his first Sunday in the autumn of 1948 at (Hotchkiss) boarding school in Connecticut, a few years after he accompanied his grandfather, Roger, mayor of San Francisco, to speeches he gave during WWII. Roger's father and my maternal great-grandfather Henry George Lapham were first cousins and friends, so I have heard. In an excerpt lifted and pasted below from the full essay, Lewis notes he had never set foot in Connecticut before entering Hotchkiss. Brings a story (an essay?) to mind, but that is for another day.

I never thought it would happen, this writing I am doing. If I died tomorrow, I can say, right now, I finally woke up before my time came. 

Muchas gracias.

"Arriba Mr. Lewis!"
The Solid Nonpareil
by Lewis H. Lapham

Well, humor is the great thing, the saving thing, after all.
—Mark Twain


This issue of the Quarterly relies on sources predominantly British or American, many of them drawn from within the frame of the last two centuries, because I can hear what isn't being said. Usually, not always. Even in one’s own day and age it’s never a simple matter to catch the drift in the wind or judge the lay of the land. Lenny Bruce (Los Angeles, page 153) remarks on the collapse of his off-color nightclub act in front of a milk-white audience in Milwaukee—“They don’t laugh, they don’t heckle, they just stare at me in disbelief ”—and I’m reminded of my own first encounter, at the age of thirteen,with a silence casting me into an outer darkness in a galaxy far, far away.

In the autumn of 1948 on my first Sunday at a Connecticut boarding school, the headmaster (a pious and confiding man, as grave as he was good) welcomed the returning and newly arriving students with an edifying sermon. Protestant but nondenominational,the chapel had been built to the design of an early-eighteenth-century New England spiritual simplicity—white wood, unstained glass, straight-backed pews set in two sternly disciplined rows before an unobtrusive pulpit. The students were arranged alphabetically by class, seniors to the fore, preps, myself among them, fitted into the choir loft above the doors at the rear. My family 
having moved east from California only a few weeks prior to my being sent off to school, I’d never before seen a Connecticut landscape. 

More to the point, I’d only twice been inside a church, for an uncle’s wedding and a police chief ’s funeral.The latter ceremony I’d attended with my grandfather during his tenure as mayor of San Francisco during the Second World War, one of the many occasions on which, between the ages of seven and eleven, I listened to him deliver an uplifting political speech. Out of the loop within the walls of the chapel, I assumed that the headmaster’s sermon was a canvassing for votes, whether for or from God I didn't know, but either way a call to arms, and as I had been taught to do when an admiral or a parks commissioner completed his remarks, I stood to attention with the tribute of firm and supportive applause.

The appalled silence in the chapel was as cold as a winter in Milwaukee. The entire school turned to stare in disbelief, the headmaster nearly missed his step down from the pulpit, the boys to my left and right edged away, as if from a long-dead rat. Never mind that my intention was civil, my response meant to show respect. During the next four years at school, I never gained admission to the company of the elect. I’d blotted my copybook, been marked as an offensive humorist from the wrong side of the Hudson River. 

In the troubled sea of the world’s ambition, men rise by gravity, sink by levity, and on my first Sunday in Connecticut I had placed myself too far below the salt to indulge the hope of an ascent to the high-minded end of the table—not to be trusted with the singing of the school song, or with the laughing at people who didn't belong to beach clubs on Long Island. The sense of being off the team accompanied me to Yale College (I never saw the Harvard game) and shaped my perspective as a young newspaper reporter in the 1950s. A potentially free agent, not under contract to go along with the program—able to find fault with an official press release, put an awkward question to a department-store mogul—I was looked upon with suspicion by the wisdoms in office. The attitude I took for granted on the part of real-estate kingpins and ladies enshrined in boxes at the opera,but I didn't recognize it as one adjustable to any and all occasions until the winter night in 1958 when the San Francisco chapter of Mensa International (a society composed of persons blessed with IQ test scores above the ninety-eighth percentile) staged a symposium meant to plumb to its utmost depths (intellectual, psychological, and physiological) the mystery of human gender.

Wine and cheese to be served, everybody to remove his or her clothes before being admitted to the discussion. Dispatched by the San Francisco Examiner to report on the event, I didn't make it past the coat racks on which the seekers of the naked truth draped their fig leaves. But even with the embodiments of genius, Mensa wasn't taking any chances. Confronted with a display of for the most part unlovely and decomposing flesh, the doorkeepers distributed identifying wrist bracelets, blue silk for boys, pink velvet for girls, one of each for gays, lesbians, and transsexuals. What was wonderful was the utter seriousness of the proceeding. Nobody laughed or risked the semblance of a smile; the company of the elect looked with proud disdain upon the fully clothed reporters standing around in unpolished shoes. 

Lewis H Lapham, Lapham's Quarterly, Winter 2014, in introduction to the issue, "Comedy"