B After The Fact

Friday, February 25, 2005

Christo's Gates

"The Sun's Not Yellow, It's Chicken" -- Bob Dylan

My wife and I walked through Christo's Gates in Central Park on Wednesday.

I work in an office overlooking Central Park, and in the days leading up to our walk, I looked out the window, and wondered why someone was hanging orange sheets all over Central Park.

I was assured the experience would be much different when I actually walked through the Gates.

Oh and by the way, I was told, the Gates' not orange, it's saffron.

Well, my wife came up to look at the aerial view of the saffron gates and said that it looked like a Home Depot store under construction.

There is so much construction going on in New York City all the time. Lots of people joke that, "I'm not coming back to New York City until they finish it."

And all those construction sites have orange, um, I mean, saffron, pylons that mark off the construction site.

Walking through the Gates felt like walking through all the construction scaffolding that was recently in the neighborhood, for years, while they were building the Time Warner Center.

On the whole, the biggest problem with the Gates was a problem I could not have foreseen when I was looking down at them from the 30th floor.

The Gates block your view of the sky. In Central Park you have one of your few opportunites to stand in Manhattan, amongst the trees, look up, and see a view of the sky. The Gates took that away from me.

Every once a while, the Gates are spaced apart a little more, and the wind blows in such and such a way, and the light hits in such and such a way, and it looks nice. And people who have gone through the Gates a few times tell me you never know when that nice effect might happen from day to day. But I'm sorry, that's just coincidence, that's just trying to take some lemons, and, you know, make some lemonade, um, I mean orange-ade. Is there saffron-ade?

Some die-hards tell me that I am missing the entire point. Yes, the Gates make Central Park feel like its under construction. But next week, when the Gates are gone, I'll feel like the Park has completed a renovation, a face-lift. I will have the rush of enjoying the "new improved Central Park." And that rush, that afterglow will be attributable to the Gates.

Well, maybe so. But mostly it reminds me that my own house is under renovation, and that I need to get to Home Depot this weekend.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

In Response To New Challenges, B Sings An Old Song

In the previous post, I re-posted my Tuesday comments section, which was a discussion between me and The Unrepentent Individual regarding the nature of charities, and charitable giving. This is an adjunct to a running argument that has been going on, basically in the comments section among me, Brad (The Unrepentant One) and A Red Mind In A Blue State , with an occasional assist from THE ARIZONA LAWYER (who really ought to have a blog-site of his own).

The thing that struck me most in Brad's comments, the thing that crystallizes the Blue State/ Red State; Liberal/ Conservative: whatever you want to call it split is

"I think it is society's job, but while I might try to convince you to help others, I don't think I have a right to stick my hand in your pocket and force you to, I believe private charity can and will step up, help those in need, and be fully funded by Americans who, like me, believe that it is our job to do so."

I don't think so, at all ---

1. There is no history of charity providing for those in need in a manner that they ought to be provided for, unless that charity is the church. The level of charitable giving in the United States, is, I know, unprecedented. However, that is, in some respect, because of, not in spite of, high taxes. If taxes were not providing for basic needs, then charitable giving would not feel so sexy or attractive.

2. I thought, that all-in-all, the long range goal of the exercise was "Government of the people, by the people, and for the people." If we have a government like that, or we are on the right road to a government like that, why would charitable giving be much different from government giving.

3. Charities in America are very hard to distinguish from corporations in America. My opinion is that the only reason charities, corporations, or religions in America have any transparency at all, is because of government coercion, or the threat of government coercion lurking behind it.

4. I can't agree when someone complains about being "forced to give" or about you not having "a right to stick my hand in your pocket." We all support the uniquely American mix of democracy and capitalism in any number of ways, including all of the ways that are generally lumped together at the "New Deal/ Great Society." The great contention, the great argument is that I think that without these things, you would not have a pocket for anyone to put their hand into.

And now the old song. A reprint of

my August 8, 2003 post. I still have not changed my mind.

"It may be the Devil/ Or it may be the Lord/ But you're gonna have to serve somebody" -- Bob Dylan

Let me conclude, before my vacation, and before switching, I hope, well not the topic, but the way I handle the topic, by saying something pretty basic.

No one is in favor of small government. Everyone is in favor of having as much power in their corner as possible. People who complain that the government has too much power are generally those who stand to benefit most if the government's power is reduced.

People say that the government should not do it, that people can do it themselves, and better.

As a Democrat, I would prefer to put it like this (although I agree that this may not be the official Democratic position):

If the government does not do it, individuals (Republicans) will be left alone --- and they will starve to death. What will keep individuals from starving will not be their own efforts, because they lack the resources to do it themselves. Communal efforts of their fellow citizens won't do it, because their fellow citizens are hungry as well. What keeps everyone from starving is the largesse of some other large actor, either the church or the landlord (the corporation in modern parlance). Given these four bad choices --- church, state, corporation, starving to death --- I agree that Democrats do tend to cast their lot with the state. Excessive state will kill you. History is full of examples. However, excessive church also kills, excessive greed by landlords and corporations also kills, and starvation ...

So when people talk about limiting the government to its smallest possible level, I get the sense that they are not trying to make me more free, but are trying to switch the power to the church, the moneyed interests, or they're simply trying to starve me to death.

All-in-all, here in the United States, allowing government to be the dominant actor gives us a better chance for freedom than the church, the corporation or starvation does. Of course, the government has to be pared back from time to time, but that does not mean that a power vacuum should be created that is filled by one of the other three horsemen. The ministers and the landlords and the CEOs and their major stockholders have less freedom than they would otherwise, but I can't be so worried about them. Set up any game you want to play, and they still come out ahead.

This New Deal/ Great Society government has been so successful that it has raised a generation so well-fed and so free that it cannot imagine why the government had to become so large in the first place. One of the biggest losers of the New Deal sits in the Oval Office. Without the New Deal, his family would have so much more money, and we would have so much less opportunity.

A Colloquy between the Unrepentant Individual and Me

The comments section of Tuesday's post contains a major back-and-forth between me and Brad Warbiany who posts a wonderful blogsite The Unrepentant Individual . I am reprinting the entire exchange here, and then I will respond (sort of) in the next posting. I've edited out the repetitions and complaints regarding my choice of a bad Haloscan option. As soon as I figure out my passwords, I will contact Haloscan!

When you say "save" social security, and I notice you use quotes, I wonder what you mean?

There are two ways, AFAIK, for a liberal to respond to the system. The first is to deny the problem. Assuming that you agree that the system needs to be "saved", that is not your position. The second way is to propose small changes to the system to shore up aspects of its finances long-term. This involves such things as increasing the retirement age, increasing taxes, changing the way benefits are indexed, removing the cap on payroll taxes, etc. A combination of these aspects could make social security soluble.

You say that those of us on the right don't want to "save" the system. Inasmuch as our goal is a fundamental change to the entire social security system, you are right. The reason for this, is that we see the system as it currently stands as extremely inefficient. When a cost-benefit analysis is viewed, it is an enormous drain on millions of people to ensure that a few seniors are given a monthly stipend barely beyond that of poverty.

I don't want to save that system, I want to improve that system. We see eye to eye on the fact that we want a system that ensures our senior citizens a dignified retirement. However, I postulate that our current system is barely able to accomplish that, and does it at such an enormous cost that we can do better.
Brad Warbiany | Email | Homepage | 02.22.05 - 6:57 pm | #


No. I am not talking about people like you. You think the economic doesn't work. I think you're wrong, but maybe you're not. The number of people like you, who believe that the system needs to be fixed so that the numbers work, can now be counted on one hand.

When you see things like the AARP ad, and other indicia of the weekend, you have to realize that the conversation has moved to a more radical point.

I have come to believe that the decision makers in this Administration believe that a government-based retirement system is wrong -- as in "immoral"

Therefore, the Administration is in fundamental conflict with anyone who believes that the system is worth saving in any real respect.

Now you see the Administration's "scorched earth" policy, as manifest in the AARP ads.

I have no idea how you can have a dialogue over an issue of morality. I do not know how you can have a conversation where one side says that if you are for Social Security you must th
| Email | Homepage | 02.22.05 - 7:52 pm | #

I'd normally be mad at someone for putting words in my mouth, and yet you're doing the exact opposite.

As a matter of principal, I am a libertarian nearly bordering on anarchism. I don't believe the state has any moral right to enforce a retirement system. I think society has a moral duty to protect it's least fortunate, but don't believe this is the government's job.

That being said, I'm a pragmatist. I realize that my views are not highly shared among most people. At the very least, I want to see that our social programs are run in an economically sane manner. My arguments are intended to ensure that if we are going to have a quasi-socialist state, that we at least do what we can to run it efficiently.
Brad Warbiany | Email | Homepage | 02.22.05 - 10:36 pm | #

Actually, I was trying not to put words in your mouth at all, which is why I tried not to focus on your specific points. I am sorry if I failed in my task.

What I am saying is that the main political argument now, in my opinion, is being carried on between those who want destroy the system completely, on philosophical grounds, and those who out of necessity, are going to need to defend against destruction by saying that everything is perfect.

It is also possible, as I said in my last response, that the argument would be held on moral grounds, and I have no idea how these two diametrically opposed moral value systems are going to possibly be able to talk to each other. Needless to say, I believe I walk with God. Needless to say, those on the other side believe I have lost my way.

Your arguments over the last several weeks have been, on the whole, pragmatic. Occasionally you will say something idealistic, such as

"I think society has a moral duty to protect it's least fortunate, but don't believe this is the government's job."

I think you have more support for that position than any pragmatic economic argument you might make.

I think you are wrong, but I do not have a way to prove it to you that you would accept.

It's the basic questions, beginning with:

If society has the moral obligation, and the government should not be the agent for discharging that obligation, whose obligation should it be?

Why do you think someone other than the elected government can deliver services in a way that would avoid the problems that you think government causes?
| Email | Homepage | 02.23.05 - 12:08 am | #


First question: My thought is that one of the major problems with government is that it is not voluntary. I believe, and I think most Americans believe, that helping our fellow man is an incredibly important act of virtue. America has consistently held itself out to be an absolute leader in charitable contributions, even on top of all the money paid to government.

I think it is society's job, but while I might try to convince you to help others, I don't think I have a right to stick my hand in your pocket and force you to. I believe private charity can and will step up, help those in need, and be fully funded by Americans who, like me, believe that it is our job to do so. When the government steals from me for the same purpose, I think they steal more than just money, they pull "virtue" out of the equation.
Brad Warbiany | Email | Homepage | 02.23.05 - 12:19 pm | #


Second question: This is related to the comment you left on my site about accountability.

I believe private charity is more flexible, more accountable, and more efficient than the government.

Flexibility: Federal government specifically, is simply a "one size fits all" solution. Show up at the door, take your check, move along. People are individuals with individual problems. I think private charity has more intention and more ability to take an individual approach and cure problems, rather than treat symptoms.

Accountability: Who is the federal government accountable to? Not voters, with the gerrymandering problems we have. Not the recipients, because they have no power to speak out. Not their funding, because people who are spending other people's money rarely worry that much about how it's spent. Private charities rely on voluntary contributions. As such, they need to provide results and honesty, or their contributions will be put to more reputable charities. Government gets their cut of your income without any choice, nor do individuals have any recourse for removing that funding if they don't like the system it supports.

Efficiency: Much like the above argument, this comes down to an OPM (other people's money) issue. When you're spending OPM, efficiency goes out the window. When there is no competitive market providing services, efficiency goes out the window. When oversight and control is farther and farther away from the people providing money and the people providing the service, efficiency goes out the window.

Simply put, I just don't think the government is capable of living up to the promises they make. And a system outside government won't be hampered by all the same problems, but will have competition and inherent feedback loops to ensure better performance. Note that I don't say perfect perform

Note that I don't say perfect performance, because that won't be acheived either way. But I think the market is more perfect than the government.


BTW I cross-posted my responses at my site. Hope you don't mind.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Senator Clinton and the New York Post

Yesterday's New York Post editorial, again, offered praise for Senator Clinton's position on Iraq

Nothing gets everyone so hot and bothered, on both the right and the left, as an intelligent conversation of Hillary Clinton's position on the War on Terrorism.

The editorial says:

"Speaking from Baghdad as part of a high-profile "fact-finding" tour, Mrs. Clinton over the weekend expressed "cautious optimism" about Iraq's future — and firmly rejected any artificial deadline for U.S. troop withdrawals:

""That just gives a green light to the insurgents and the terrorists, that if they can just wait us out they can basically have the country. It's not in our interests, given the sacrifices we've made.""

The Post's opinion:

"The logic is impeccable."

Naturally, the bulk of the editorial goes on to question the Senator's motives, but in the end even the Post had to throw up their hands and admit:

"President Bush, in other words, just got an "attaboy" from an unlikely source.

"Moveon.org and the Angry wing of the Democratic Party no doubt will seek to make Mrs. Clinton pay for her candor — correct though she may be.

"When that day comes, more moderate Democrats should keep in mind what Mrs. Clinton said when it mattered — and apportion their support accordingly."

Even I understand that Senator Clinton is a professional politician, married to the best political strategist in the modern Democratic party. But those people who have an irrational hatred of Hillary Clinton, or an irrational love, need to take a step back every once in a while, and listen to what she is actually saying. It is amazing, but if you actually stop and listen, politicians, over time, do say what they are actually thinking.

Senator Clinton seems to be saying that there was something wrong in the Middle East that caused them to bomb a building, in New York, where she has a job as United States Senator. What was wrong in the Middle East has to be made right.

Anyone who thinks that Hillary Clinton is Edward Kennedy is Michael Moore, both those who fundraise with it on the right and those who hope for it on the left, are simply setting up some fictional character to advance their own agendas.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Swift Boat AARP

The American Spectator has taken "Swift Boat AARP" down. Daily Kos still has it.

Swift Boat AARP

You're reading it here --- and you've probably read it a million other places as well.

The American Spectator is running an ad on their website showing that the true agenda of AARP is anti-military and pro gay-marriage.

This goes back to my point in my Social Security article on Saturday that there is no sense in trying to find a middle ground to "save" Social Security, when the people on the other side are not interested in a middle ground. Not interested in saving Social Security at all.

Just when you think that there is no further cynicism you can have about W- and Karl Rove, you find that you are just a rube in the haystack.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Ulysses Grant

In connection with my research for my own play on the early years of Ulysses Grant, I recently read Ulysses Grant by Michael Korda and Ulysses Grant by Josiah Bunting . Bunting's book, part of the American Presidents series of 200-page histories, is more objective, more thorough on Grant's foreign policy (which Bunting feels is underrated). Korda's book, part of some other series of 200-page histories, is more impressionistic and opinionated. Korda tries to make a lot of hidden comparisons between Grant and Bush, where, Bush, of course, is lacking (why else would an author bring a thing like that up?)

Here are some comparisons that I have come up with:

Both were indifferent students – Bush at Yale, Grant at West Point -- neither man really chose where they went to college. They basically went where their fathers sent them.

Grant was an outstanding horseman, but because of his indifferent class standing, could not get a cavalry assignment after graduating West Point.

Bush appeared to be an outstanding aviator, but personal traits, still largely obscure to a general reader, seemed to prevent him from flying as much as he should.

They went through long middle periods, roughly 13 years in Grant’s case (split equally in the Army and outside of the Army), perhaps even longer in Bush’s case, where each flitted from business opportunity to business opportunity. In all cases, the opportunities were created not from their own efforts but through family connections.

They were both seen as quiet men, withdrawn, and despite each having fathers who were sucessful leaders, neither was seen as likely candidates for leadership positions.

Both had problems based on their love of the bottle. It seems to me, without going through 100s of pages, that both were held back by their alcoholic phases, that it cost both of them real trouble in life, but just how much trouble may be overstated in the "popular" biographies of each men. Through it all, each man knew, in his heart of hearts, that he was slated for greatness.

Perhaps as a result of their business failures, Grant, and to a lesser extent Bush, seemed to over-romanticize the skills of business people, and felt that business skills were more important than the skills other people had.

Grant's Presidency was wracked by business scandals. Virtually none of those scandals were about Grant personally, but some of them were caused by family connections. Although history has been very unkind to Grant because of his business scandals, it seems to me that the general public held the scandals against Grant very much.

Bush's Presidency has also been wracked by business scandals that seems to concern the media more than the general public.


In showing how overstated the Grant scandals are, both Korda and Bunting borrow heavily from Grant Reconsidered by Frank Scaturro , another short book, which was actually Scaturro's senior thesis at Harvard. However, they each fail to make the point that Scaturro's makes, a point that really has not been discussed in any of the recent full-blown Grant biographies either:

Grant believed that the primary cause of the Civil War was slavery, and the primary victory of the Civil War, the one that should be consolidated by the victors, was the legal equality of the freed slaves.(not the social equality or economic equality -- Grant was a 19th century man). Grant basically failed at his attempts to make Reconstruction beneficial for the freed slave, and the result of the contested election of 1876 was to end Reconstruction altogether. However, Grant's attempt to help the freed slave, feeble though they were, were the only serious attempts to be made by an American President for the next 60+ years.

It is the animosity Grant caused by these views -- his views of slavery as a root cause of the Civil War, and his view that legal equality was a proper use of the Union victory of the Civil War -- that has caused history to give Grant failing grades as a President. Was he a great President? No. Was he dealt the hardest hand of any President from 1865-1918? Yes. Did he play his hand reasonably well? Yes. Was he a better President than any of Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Hayes, Arthur and Benjamin Harrison, all 19th century Presidents who are often ranked above Grant? Yes

Saturday, February 19, 2005

More (sigh) on Social Security

We had ourselves quite a little he-said she-said on Social Security over at A Red Mind In A Blue State . The basic brawl was between the Red Mind, who writes the site, and Arizona Lawyer, who was the guest "Blue Mind In A Red State" counterpart. I met Red Mind in 1971 and Arizona Lawyer in 1972.

For the undercard, a number of us, including me, The Unrepentant Individual , and other readers of Red Mind's site had a nice little free-for-all in the Comments section. No punches were thrown, but otherwise Jerry Springer would have been proud of us.

The basic question was "Is Social Security Senior Welfare?" You can read the entire thing yourself, but in the end, and I said a number of things in the comments section, but for my last comment I said this:

"I agree with you that an insurance policy, including this Social Security policy, should not increase benefits without increasing premiums. The fact that this is not yet seriously on the table tells me that the argument (maybe not the particular one we are having, but the general argument) is not about how to fix Social Security, but how to get rid of a working big government program that destroys the conservative myth that big government programs don't work, that only big business programs work. The myth that Hilary is symbolic of big government, but that somehow Kennyboy Lay is not symbolic of big business. ....

".... But what I particularly disagree with is the notion that I am supposed to step aside and allow you and another 200,000,000 people like you make stupid financial decisions that will leave all of you penniless in your old age. You have no more right to be penniless in your old age than a crazy person has to walk the streets. If that does not give enough access to money for my libertarian friends on my right, or if that does not give enough access to the streets for my ACLU friends on my left, too bad.

"The view of human beings that has been expressed in this exchange is beyond science fiction. The idea that people are all going to get rich off their free choices in picking stock belies about one gazillion years of human history.

"The idea that after these same people all go broke picking stocks, they will then willingly shrug their shoulders, and say "thems the breaks" and go off in a hole somewhere to die, is just --- I'd have to invent a new word for it, but I just don't have the imagination for it. Supercalifragiridiculous.

"You keep saying that there is a system somewhere that can make you more money. Not in my house. In my house, I am just trying to avoid a system, the system that is being floated by the Bushies, that makes me pay for you three times.

"I am already paying for you once. Then I have to pay for you again when you set your system up. Then I'm going to have to pay for you a third time when your system fails and we have to set up my old system again.

"That's an awful lot of government spending for you anti-government types to be so in favor of.

"You say I'm not hip to change. That I'm too wedded to the past. But the system you propose was tried -- it failed in 1929. That sounds a lot like the past to me."

I have rarely had an exchange of views change my thinking so much. Before this exchange, I thought I understood the arguments for Social Security reform. Now I realize that Daniel Moynihan is dead, and no one is interested in Social Security reform. Large millions of people feel that there is something immoral about Social Security, but they also feel that there is nothing immoral about leaving people to be the victim of choices that were not really choices at all. I don't understand that logic, and now I see I never will. I think that these people feel that they have the power, either through actual end-of-a-gun power, or God power. I think they're wrong, but I could never prove it, nor could they prove their power to me.

The basic thing I have changed my mind about is one of the points that is easiest for conservatives to prove: There used to be 16 workers for every retiree, now there are 3, soon there will be 2.

But the thing that really hit home for me, that I had to be reminded of again, is that without Social Security, there would be long stretches where I could not work at all. I would have to be sitting at home taking care of my parents and my brother. So now the 3 workers would have to be supporting me too. I am sure that this is true for everyone. I know that everyone has to either take time off, or jump off the fast track (and the slow track) to attend to family matters. It would even be more so without this social welfare system.

Once you define the system like that, then all of the disability benefits, all of the survivor benefits, fit in properly. The Social Security system, like a lot of other things, is not completely about the retirement of old people. It is about making sure that able-bodied workers are in a position to do things that generate the most tax dollars for the economy. In the end, it is better that the people who can make money should be free to do so. The economy is better off for it.

Is that moral? Sure it is.

The most important thing I have learned from A Red Mind In A Blue State exchange is that if you have to ask why, I could never explain it to you.

But I'll try sometime soon, when I discuss the idiocy of the Bankruptcy Reform legislation.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Another Word For Prince

We've been arguing the relative merits of Prince over at A Red Mind In A Blue State

I am all 4 Prince. In 1983, Prince said everything about what was going to happen. If the CIA had been listening to Prince, instead of trying to bust him for his occasional look into the Dirty Mind, they would have known about what times under Clinton were going to be like, what times under Bush were going to be like, and what caused the change.

If you knew this lyric, it was the thing playing in your head as you were walking from Carnegie Hall to Forest Hills that day, and for many months after that. At least it was playing in mine.

The fact that Prince was looking 17 years in the future and was only 9 months off is well within the margin of error. Much better than Donald Rumsfeld did.

so for the 3 of u who don't know it. These are the lyrics to

1999 (by Prince Rogers Nelson)

I was dreamin’ when I wrote this
Forgive me if it goes astray
But when I woke up this mornin’
Coulda sworn it was judgment day
The sky was all purple,
There were people runnin’ everywhere
Tryin’ 2 run from the destruction,
U know I didn’t even care

They say two thousand zero zero party over,
Out of time
So tonight I’m gonna party like it’s 1999

I was dreamin’ when I wrote this
So sue me if I go 2 fast
But life is just a party, and parties weren’t meant 2 last
War is all around us, my mind says prepare 2 fight
So if I gotta die I’m gonna listen 2 my body tonight

They say two thousand zero zero party over,
Out of time
So tonight I’m gonna party like it’s 1999

If u didn’t come 2 party,
Don’t bother knockin’ on my door
I got a lion in my pocket,
And baby he’s ready 2 roar
Yeah, everybody’s got a bomb,
We could all die any day
But before I’ll let that happen,
I’ll dance my life away

They say two thousand zero zero party over,
Out of time
So tonight we gonna
Party like it’s 1999

Mommy, why does everybody have a bomb?
Mommy, why does everybody have a bomb?

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Arthur Miller

Thanks to Professor William Kovacsik for allowing us to post his e-mail about the passing of Arthur Miller

Some random thoughts from me:

In my essay for my AP Exam, I wrote about The Crucible. Don't remember what I wrote, but I know I wrote about it. Couldn't have said too much intelligent since I knew almost nothing about sex at that time, and must have completely missed the dynamic between John Proctor, his wife, and the girl with whom he had an affair. I do know that even when I forget the particulars of the play (and that is never for too long, there always seems to be a new version coming out), I do remember John Proctor saying, as he confronts the reality of his certain death, "Because It Is My Name, And I Can Have No Other." I try to keep that in mind, and as I get older, and I see how hard it is to live up to that, and how often I fail to. Always though, you try to get back to it. I was the only person in my AP English class to write an essay about a book that was not actually covered in the class (we had actually read The Crucible in 10th grade). Got the "5" (the highest grade).

One of my great theatre going regrets, so far, is that I still have not seen a production of A View From The Bridge, and that I missed Tony LaPaglia doing it a few years ago. As an actor, I always envisioned doing that myself. The time has passed. I am not too old, but I doubt I could be that raw night after night and still function day after day.

One of my great theatre nerd pleasures was arguing the merits of After The Fall, a play I still haven't seen yet either (and perhaps never will) over two full class periods with the theatre lit professor at Hofstra. My professor, who probably knew some of the people being depicted, and knew whether Miller had been "fair" to them or not, hated everything about the play. I conceded that I could not vouch for the accuracy of the piece, but I knew that it was a great play, and as memories of the people involved faded, would take its place for emotional truth. Got the "A" anyway.

Did not see George C. Scott do Willy Loman in Death of A Salesman, but I did see the Dustin Hoffman production, and I bought tickets in advance. It is hard now to remember that they kept pushing back the production because the actor playing Biff, an actor unfamiliar to me, was off making a movie somewhere with Sally Field. Why would Dustin Hoffman wait for someone to finish making a Sally Field movie? Of course, looking back it is easy to see why they would wait for Malkovich to finish filming Places In The Heart.

As much as Hoffman "rewrote" Willy -- changing him from a "walrus" to a "shrimp," Malkovich changed Biff from a football player banging against the wall of post "big man on campus" reality to a confused young man whose only connection to football was an attempt to win his father's love and respect. Being a young man myself, I completely related. I certainly was watching a much different play than the one my high school English teacher (not to mention the afore-mentioned college professor) taught me to expect.

There is a film of Hoffman and Malkovich doing Death of A Salesman, and it is OK, but that play, and all the great Arthur Miller great plays are plays, and they need to be seen live. They are too "hot" for film, the emotions too raw.

(It is hard to look at Malkovich now and remember what an amazing stage actor he was, and if you are not a professional actor, it is impossible to understand how important Malkovich is to what we all do as stage actors, and writers and directors. In some ways, Malkovich is the most important -- maybe the best, but certainly the most important -- stage actor of the last 30 years.)

Finally saw The Misfits for the first time, well, the first two times, since I couldn't see it only once, on TCM very recently. Miller knew how to write for film as well, and that movie, about dying breeds of all sorts, is completely unique. Couldn't make a movie like that except through a series of accidents, since Gable, Monroe and Clift are all completely out of control, and you can see it on screen. As a sometime professional actor, I hate to say something so philistine, but no one is that honest on purpose.

I wouldn't go back to those days, but it does show you that straining against a Production Code has its values. Nowadays, you would have Monroe's character pole dancing, and you would have every moment of raw emotion replaced by a sex scene, which I guess is even more raw, but far less honest.

WCK talked about Miller's role in his development as a playwright. I have been talking about him as an actor, and as an actor doing Miller, the key, for me, is that since Miller is always telling you just the way things are (the moral honesty that is lacking, well not just in today's theatre, but in all theatre at all times), you have to show how hard it is to be so honest in a dishonest world. And it would be nicer still, both for your lungs and for the audience's ears, if you can do that without screaming. Few, even at the professional level, seem able to pull it off.

Malkovich did Biff at a whisper, an impossible stunt, that he could pull off in only that time and place (he would never be that young/ that old again), and thanks to his example, you can now see as much bad Miller acting at the whisper level as you used to see at the scream level.

My good friend Gloria Falzer is slated to do The Ride Down Mt Morgan at Twelve Miles West in Bloomfield, New Jersey later this spring. I have never seen that one, know nothing about it. I think I better get my tickets now. I am sure Gloria Falzer will not engage in bad acting. The other people -- who knows?

Professor Bill Kovacsik Writes About Arthur Miller

It is both a blessing and a curse to follow one’s passion in professional life. The blessing is that one experiences sheer bliss far more often than those who tread in more conventional paths. Then, there is the other side – the dark moments of failure, rejection and despair that can crush you unless you develop a pretty hard shell.

Perhaps it is not surprising that the presence of giants in one’s chosen field is also a double-edged sword. Those who possess real originality and genius show us the heights to which we can aspire. The fact that they can give us glimpses of life that go beyond what we imagine in our more quotidian existence provides a reason to keep striving. If you are a practitioner of their art, however, the very quality of their work can also be crippling; you live with the constant recognition you will never really measure up to the vision they have revealed.

A couple of years ago, someone paid me the greatest compliment I have ever received: they compared one of my plays to the work of Arthur Miller. They were speaking of the moral dimension of one of my scripts, of course, and not of its inherent dramatic qualities. I am not, and never will be, a dramatist on that level. Still, to be mentioned in the same breath by someone whose judgment I respect was a kind of validation.

Before I started acting, I wasn’t much of a theatregoer. Nevertheless, I have vivid memories of a TV presentation of Miller’s The Price on the Hallmark Hall of Fame series. I had no idea at that time that I would ever be involved in the theatre. I did know, however, that I was in the presence of an artist in complete touch with his conscience. I also knew he wrote roles that great actors, like George C. Scott and Colleen Dewhurst (who appeared in that version of The Price) would die to play.

Several of you mentioned the revival of Death of a Salesman with George C. Scott and Martin Sheen; how I wish I had seen it. My own memory of that play is of a regional production in Pittsburgh, where I saw a performer named Darren Eliker inhabit the part of Biff in a way I do not expect to experience again. The longer I live, and the harder I work for a living, the more I understand and appreciate what that play has to say.

Yet for me, Salesman – which is a revolutionary script in the way it uses time, a genuine landmark of dramaturgy – is not the play for which I will remember Arthur Miller. What I call conscience, or a moral voice, is in such short supply these days that it is scarcely possible to put a real value on it. If you want a full appreciation of what Miller was trying to tell us, go back and read All My Sons.

There is a moment in that play when Chris, a character who has fought in Europe during World War II, speaks to his girlfriend and describes the sacrifices made by the soldiers who served under his command. He tells of one private who gave him his last pair of dry socks – a priceless commodity in that time and place. He says that the men he served with gave their lives for one another. He tells his girl that he expected those sacrifices to have made some sort of difference to the people at home – but that when he arrived back in America, he found a country where petty material things ruled out any real understanding of what had his soldiers had done for their sake. When he finds out that his father was not only a war profiteer, but that he knowingly sold defective engine parts to the Army Air Force, the family is shattered. His father, destroyed by the contempt his son feels for him, is driven to commit suicide.

I need hardly mention how relevant that play, now sixty years old, feels at this moment. Except now, of course, it is apparent that some of us have lost our capacity for shame. It’s not really possible to imagine the draft-dodging war profiteer Dick Cheney feeling pangs of remorse powerful enough to upset his dinner, much less drive him to put a bullet through his brain. And George W. Bush telling us to fight terrorism by shopping for consumer goods is a sickening reminder that for some, the almighty dollar will always triumph over any decent instinct we may harbor for our fellow men and women.

As a playwright, I value the things Arthur Miller taught me – about setting up the things you want to pay off, about building a play to an authentically shattering climax – but the real truth is that I knew why Miller was important long before I cared about writing scripts. It goes back to something my old mentor and dear friend Arthur Giron once said: people go to the theatre in order to learn how to live. In all of his plays, Miller demands that we set the bar for our moral conduct at the highest level. He never lets us off the hook. He requires that we live as part of a community, rather than for the sake of our puny selves.

At this juncture in history, when there are so many evil people who tempt us by playing to our worst fears and our most selfish impulses, all we can say is that Arthur Miller will be desperately missed.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Some Writing Notes

The reading of my General Grant play went reasonably well, and I am in the middle of re-writing, a process I hope to be done with by the end of March. What happens after that remains to be seen, since I am still hoping that The Workshop Theatre will produce the piece. They are in the middle of their "Give $12" campaign. If you decide to contribute, please mention how much you are absolutely CRAVING more plays about the early years of General Grant.

There will be a reading from my still not-nearly completed novel, The Last Audition on Monday, February 28 at 8 p.m. at The Telephone Bar , 149 2nd Avenue @ 9th Street. 8 p.m. Stop by if you are in the neighborhood.

The bathroom renovation is almost done, they are installing my kitchen cabinets this week, and every once in a while I show up to work, and hope that they are cool with my strange work schedule.

I still owe everyone The Stroke -- Part 2, which will eventually show up on the other site, Time After Surgery. Haven't written on that site recently either. However, for those of you keeping score, two years ago yesterday, I was transferred by ambulette from Roosevelt Hospital on the West Side of Manhattan to North Shore Hospital in Manhasset.

And in connection with all of that, both the strange work schedule and the two-year anniversary, I took yesterday off to have some medical tests done. I went to my car to drive to North Shore Hospital, and discovered that they had stolen my airbags. Very professional. I wish I had a jeweler who could cut as cleanly as those guys cut the wires to disable the car alarm. They also took my glove compartment. Not just the contents, but the entire glove compartment.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Now That The State of the Union Is Over

Now That The State of the Union Is Over, I Must Now Turn My Attention To Something Truly Important:

The SAG Awards

My reading of my General Grant play went pretty well on Sunday night. Many re-writes have been requested, but the general level of response was very heartening. I will let you know when there is another reading.

However working with the General Grant piece brings me very close to the problems of biopics, such as the Ray Charles and Howard Hughes pics that have been nominated for the SAG Awards (where I get to vote) and of course the Oscars (where I don't).

Basically, in a biopic, you are somewhat compelled to stick to the facts of the story, even where good drama would be better served by another result. For example, how many filmgoers (and Republicans) would have been happier if DeCaprio came out of his room at the end of The Aviator and just kicked the crap out of Alec Baldwin? Would have made for a much better movie. Who wouldn't have wanted to see a hot love scene between Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet in Finding Neverland? However, since the film is based on real events, you can't do it.

Because of that, it is hard to make a great biopic. I know biopics have won Oscars. How do you vote against Gandhi? It's hard to do, though.

I have seen all 5 Oscar nominees (Ray, The Aviator, Finding Neverland, Million Dollar Baby and Sideways) and 5 of the 6 SAG Award nominees (I have not seen Hotel Rwanda yet). Generally, I thought they were all B-plus films. None of the films have an overwhelming "right" to the Oscar -- like a Lord of the Rings or Titanic. None of them would be an embarrassing "Driving Miss Daisy" sort of choice.

With that in mind, this is how I voted.

Best Actor --- Jamie Foxx. His Ray Charles is amazing, and you think you are watching a documentary for long stretches of time. Foxx is quicksilver, switching emotions in a heartbeat, and you get the sense that Ray Charles was the same. The script hit a lot of wrong notes, by the way, and Foxx was forced to play some of them, but all and all he transcended the material.

I could have also voted for DiCaprio, who, if such a thing is possible for a guy as famous as DiCaprio, is the most underrated actor of this generation. I think audiences, especially audiences raised on reality television, are comfortable with how relaxed and intimite DiCaprio is in front of the camera. On the whole, the producers, directors, and writers in Hollywood have not caught up with it yet. More than Tom Hanks, even, I think that DiCaprio in the one who will have the dark side, the Hitchcock side, of Jimmy Stewart's career. It is DiCaprio who should do the remakes of Rear Window and Winchester '73.

Best Actress -- Kate Winslett. I liked Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind a lot, and I think it measures favorably with any of the movies nominated. I thought Carrey was fine, but for some reason the Academy does not like Carrey. If Nicholas Cage had done the part, he would not have been as good as Carrey, and the movie would have received a Best Picture nod. What I liked about this movie was that it was a romantic comedy that could only be a movie. Most romantic comedies are better off as TV shows, or plays. I actually thought Kate's performance in Finding Neverland was better, but it wasn't nominated. It is impossible to believe that this is the same actress who did Titanic. Or even Sense and Sensibility. By the way, while we're talking Leonardo and Kate, has anyone ever given a worse performance in a major motion picture than Billy Zane did in Titanic?

The SAG Awards have a TV component, and I was able to vote for Hilary Swank's performance in Iron Jawed Angels, a movie I caught one night completely by accident, while I was flipping channels. If you are able to see it, you should. Also a biopic of a sort, but very very good.

Supporting Actor --- Thomas Haden Church. Sideways.
Supporting Actress --- Virginia Madsen. Sideways.

I thought that Virginia Madsen's performance in Sideways was the most compelling I saw all year. I am not sure if she should get the credit, or the screenwriter. Either way, I have met, a trillion gazillion women like the character Virginia Madsen played in Sideways. A little milage on them, but not the end of the world. Life has some promise, but it could go either way. Usually when you see a woman with that sort of history on the screen, she is played as a nut. The basic strength and dignity of Madsen's performance was something I had never seen in a character like that before. This category is the only one I have a real rooting interest in. I hope she wins, and I hope she wins the Oscar, and I hope as a result, we can see more women like her on screen.

I thought that the best performance by a supporting actor this year was by Jamie Foxx in Collateral. He held that movie together, and made a lot of ridiculous premises believable. But since I have already voted for Jamie Foxx, I thought I would give Church the nod. I just enjoyed the hell out of him. Who wouldn't?

The SAG Award goes to the "Outstanding Performance By The Cast of a Motion Picture," and as a lawyer applying that standard, I think that "The Aviator" wins. I thought that DiCaprio was only slightly less than Foxx, and that the overall cast of "The Aviator" was much stronger.

I said earlier that I did not see an "A" movie all year, and that all the movies were "B-plus. An "A" movie would have to be ambitious, something that could only be a movie, and meet its ambitions. "The Return of the King," for an example is an "A" movie. (I'm one of those funny ones who thought that "The Two Towers" was the best of the three.)

"Million Dollar Baby" and "Sideways" were pretty perfect, but they had small ambitions. Sideways had a lot of positives, but the gorgeous photography of the Napa Valley that I was expecting never happened, and I am having a hard time getting around it. "Million Dollar Baby" had an ambitious theme, but not very many cinematic values. I did not enjoy the first 30 minutes of "Finding Neverland" that much, for no particular reason.

Both "Ray" and "The Aviator" had large ambitions, which they did not always achieve. "Ray" had no cool airplane sequences. "The Aviator" had strange skips and cuts. It felt compelled to shout out references to things that may have made good history, but did nothing for the movie (a common problems in biopics).

Also, by voting for the "Aviator," I spread the wealth a little bit more, and I think that reflects the way I felt about the year in general.