Wednesday, May 30, 2007


By Roger Repohl

THE BRONX, N.Y. - Last week the PBS documentary series “The American Experience” aired “Building the Alaska Highway,” Tracy Heather Strain’s taut and telling account of one of the most spectacular engineering feats of World War II: 1,500 miles of road cut through virgin land in the harshest of environments and completed in under eight months.
Think about that. Now think about Iraq.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, faced with the very real possibility of a Japanese invasion from the north, the War Department set as top priority the construction of a supply route from Dawson Creek in British Columbia, through the Canadian Yukon to outside of Fairbanks, forging the last link between the 48 states and the heart of the Alaska Territory. Conceived by bureaucrats with little first-hand knowledge of sub-Arctic terrain and weather, the Alaska-Canada (or Alcan) Highway was begun in March of 1942. Eleven thousand soldiers of the Army Corps of Engineers, most of them raw recruits with no road-building experience, were sent up to do the job. Three of the seven regiments were African-American, put to their first great test of the war and proving their resourcefulness and grittiness. In addition, five thousand experienced Canadian and American civilian construction workers, supervised by the Public Roads Administration, complemented the force.
The plans of the bureaucrats were modified by reality. Seat-of-the-pants engineering built the highway: every obstacle forced a workaround, every failure forced a try-again. Bridging rivers and blasting rock were one thing; muskeg bogs that immobilized trucks and mosquitoes that ate you alive were quite another.
Enduring mythic hardship - frostbite in April, sweltering heat and insect-bite in July - these men completed the project on November 20, 1942, months ahead of schedule. And none too soon; that summer the Japanese had captured two of the Aleutian Islands at the westernmost tip of Alaska. The highway allowed a military buildup in Alaska that stymied the enemy’s ambitions and supplied the Soviet Army on the Eastern Front.
How was this remarkable feat of engineering and construction accomplished, and with such speed? It had to do with two things: attitude and apparatus.
As for attitude, the Army of 1942 was drawn from a nation of survivors of the Great Depression. Not only had people learned to endure economic hardship for over a decade, they had also been trained by Franklin Roosevelt to think collectively. Facing the Depression required a mustering of national will and the application of centralized power. When the U.S. Congress declared war in 1941 (yes, it actually declared war, not granted “war powers” to the President), the people’s will and the government’s power shifted from the enemy within to the enemy without. Would the U.S. have been able to conquer two mighty nations in less than four years had it not been steeled by its fight against poverty?
As for apparatus, the U.S. Army was an integral self-sustaining whole. It was not just a fighting force, it was its own support force as well. It maintained its own equipment, supplied its own provisions, built its own bridges and roads. It had all-around general expertise, invaluable for meeting all the unknowns and unexpecteds of war. There was little that it couldn’t do on its own, because its resources were its own and applied in a unified way.
Now think about Iraq. Think about Halliburton and Blackwater. Think about how long it’s been and how much has been spent and how little has been done. It’s all about attitude and apparatus.
The attitude of the country and its military subset is very different now. Ronald Reagan, FDR’s ideological opposite, retrained the nation away from collective commitment and toward individual gain. He trained it to see government as obstacle, not instrument. Self-interest, not the common good, became the operating ethic. Privatization was seen as the means to shrink an inept, costly federal bureaucracy while allowing free-market competition, efficient and self-regulating, to provide the best services at the lowest cost. The Invisible Hand of capitalism, not the meddling hand of central planning, would guide the nation.
Reagan’s social philosophy, like FDR’s before him, has endured long after he left the scene; its high-water mark may have been reached in the present administration, with its schemes for privatizing even the most hallowed national trust like public lands and Social Security.
Nowhere has this attitude been more misapplied than in the apparatus of the military. Over the years, and especially during the Rumsfeld tenure, the armed services have come to be run on a business model. The Army’s job is to fight; why should it have to deal with food or construction or other peripherals when private firms can do it all better and cheaper?
The multi-billion-dollar outsourcing mess in Iraq has proved that model wrong. Beyond the enormous profits made by private companies for support services, and beyond the spotty and shoddy attempts at “reconstruction,” is the debilitating effect of self-interest upon a military campaign. In Iraq it has reached right up to the fighting itself, where legions of mercenaries from firms like Blackwater compose a parallel army, making exponentially more money than the soldiers serving their country.
The issue in Iraq is more than money. The issue is fragmentation, both of resources and of will. If the military in its present configuration had to build that road in Alaska, they might still be working on it.

Friday, May 18, 2007


By Roger Repohl

THE BRONX, N.Y. - It’s etched in my memory, an icon of education: Warm spring day in New York, sun streaming through the open window of my office at the college, trees in bud, birds in song. Half a dozen students are there, declaiming on politics, religion, and dorm food. One sits on the window sill, sunning herself; another sits atop the office desk, yoga-style; a third sits on an uncomfortable wooden chair; the rest sit cross-legged on the floor. They’re there for no reason in particular; they were roaming the halls, found the open door, and settled in. They’re seniors now, chafing to graduate. Two years before, they’d taken my intro course in religious studies and, sometimes to my annoyance, had challenged just about every idea I put forth. They’d relished the verbal battle, and I’d relished battling back.
The dialectic went on past the final exam, and two years later they’re still at it. I’m still at it, too, testing their reasoning, rebutting their assertions, and having my own rebutted. They’re in training for the life of the mind. Beyond the confines of classroom and library, there in that sunny room, they’re getting an education.
This indelible scene dates from 1994. In the years that followed, fewer and fewer of these free-wheeling sessions occurred. Students still came to argue, but seldom about politics and religion; instead it was about grades. “Be careful, they’re little lawyers,” the department chairman warned me. “They’ll press their case till you relent.”
Last year, the U.S. Department of Education issued a report by its Commission on the Future of Higher Education. Among other things, it called for standardized testing of college students, primarily to bring “accountability” to colleges, similar to what is happening to elementary and high schools under the No Child Left Behind Act. In a way, it’s understandable. Average costs for four years of college now range from $63,400 to $133,000. Shouldn’t parents and prospective students, the argument goes, have some hard criteria by which to judge whether they’ll get what they’re paying for, whatever it is that they’re paying for?
Like the SAT for college applicants, these tests would check students’ ability to read, to write, to analyze, and to solve mathematical and logical problems. They would be administered in the freshman and senior years, thus revealing the effectiveness of the teaching. Apparently, the testing would be generic; knowledge of the information and analytical tools within one’s major would not be included.
The thought of measuring the results of a “higher education” infuriates and insults many professors and administrators, but the thought was inevitable, because non-elite colleges have now become higher high schools, trying to do something with the growing numbers of students whom they accept though they are practically illiterate. It is not uncommon for professors (myself included) to complain that they have been forced over the years to lower the bar of performance in their courses, assigning fewer readings because students cannot read, assigning more basic readings because the students no longer possess core knowledge in any subject, assigning fewer and more basic writing projects because the students can barely write.
Of course, an institution could just turn those candidates away, but they need the income-stream. When my college instituted an “open enrollment” policy late in the last decade, taking almost anyone who applied, it was good for the bottom line but spelled the end of college as we knew it.
Today, college has become what high school was 40 years ago, yet another four-year attempt to shape people up for the work-force. The mission is now to stop the hemorrhaging of lower education.
Despite this dumbing-down, statistics show that a good number of people graduate from four-year colleges with little more than a piece of paper to show for it. One federal study done in 2003 revealed that just 31 percent of college graduates were able to explain and analyze non-technical passages. A college degree by itself is no longer a reliable indicator to employers that a person possesses the skills necessary to perform acceptably. And thus the cry for standardized tests.
The traditional college model is based on the presumption that the work in the lower grades was basically informational and operative, involving the memorization of vast amounts of facts and the acquisition of language and computational skills, both of which can and should be subject to standardized testing. College could then build upon this foundation and, in the liberal arts at least, be “philosophical” in the literal sense, involving the acquisition of wisdom through wide reading, incisive writing, and intense dialogue with the wise. Becoming philosophical is not something that can be subject to standardized testing.
That’s the very idea of the traditional college horarium: Unlike the lower grades, rigidly structured with classes five days a week, class-time is reduced to three hours precisely to allow the leisure to read and to dialogue on critical ideas and issues. There isn’t much leisure in college today, for faculty or for students. Faculty are too busy doing remedial work (and in the future, teaching to the test) to engage in the interplay of ideas. Students hold part-time or even full-time jobs to make tuition, and the courses themselves have become little more than just another job, except they have to pay for it instead of getting paid. Do the work, get the grade, get the diploma, get out.
I’m sure there are still places where students will invade professors’ offices to hold forth on politics and religion, but in my academic life, it’s just another beautiful memory of springtime in New York.

Thursday, May 3, 2007


By Roger Repohl

THE BRONX, N.Y. - It’s always surprising to those west of the Hudson River that much of New York City has the feel of a small town. When I need a good cut of meat for a dinner party, I consult with the guys at Vincent’s Meat Market on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx’s Little Italy. When my 45-year-old Elgin windup wristwatch stops (every five years, like clockwork), I walk a block south of Vincent’s to Spinelli Jewelers, where this family store’s patriarch, not quite twice as old as my watch, takes it as a sentimental challenge: With a still-steady hand and a keen eye, he changes the mainspring and cleans the works and delivers it to me in a couple days. I’m good for another five years.
When I need a haircut, I drop in to Saverio’s Unisex Hair Styling, a block north of Vincent’s, as I’ve done for 15 years. Saverio is from that era when barbers, alarmed by the long-hair look and falling business, became hair-stylists, at least on their signs. As for the “unisex” part, that’s true: In all the years I’ve passed his window, I’ve seen only one gender on his chair. Gray-haired and full-bearded, he’s the kind of barber I like - the silent type. With the soccer game buzzing on the radio in Italian, he gives a decent cut in ten minutes for twelve bucks. I recommend him to John Edwards.
Twice a year I visit Dr. Tanzilli, the singing dentist, whose two-chair, one-man office is on the first floor of an apartment building near Westchester Square. With Sinatra, Peggy Lee, or Pavarotti playing in the background, he croons or hums along, occasionally stopping to ask you a question just when your mouth is full of gauze and suction tubes. He’s interested in you as a person, he’s unfailingly good-humored, and most importantly, he’s gentle, calming the most panicky patient. I endured years of ghoulish dentists in assembly-line offices, treating me like a specimen while making time with their cute assistants, before someone suggested Tanzilli. I almost like going to the dentist now.
It’s the same way with that other bane of life, auto repair. Finding a mechanic you trust is like finding a dentist that doesn’t scare you; it’s a miracle of good fortune. Frank was that man. I hold on to cars like I do watches, as long as they’ll run, and Frank kept them running. I first came to him on a recommendation over a decade ago, and it changed my automotive life. I used to do regular maintenance and minor repairs myself, but Frank was such a pleasure to deal with and so good to my car that I developed a dependency on him and eventually surrendered even the routine stuff into his hands.
Frank was an old-time generalist. He did everything under the hood and outside, including mufflers and windows. An Italian-American native of the Bronx with an accent to match, he opened his place on Jerome Avenue in 1963 after returning from military service. The South Bronx at that time was still prosperous, but verging on its steep decline. Unlike many businessmen who cleared out when the borough went up in flames in the 1970’s, Frank stuck around. He did take his family out of the city, buying property in Putnam County 50 miles to the north, where he could breathe fresh air and be closer to the state parks and forests where he liked to hunt and fish.
His love of nature backfired on him in the mid-1990’s, when a deer tick gave him lyme disease. It left him ungainly and sometimes spasmodic, but with the help of several personally-trained employees he carried on. His diagnoses were always accurate, his work meticulous, his prices fair.
He had the Bronx attitude, too. When my previous car, then on its last leg, failed the state emissions test, he shrugged and said, “Stay here a minute. I’ll be right back.” He walked to the shop across the street and soon returned with a valid inspection sticker. “How did you do that?” I asked. “We cheat,” he said.
Last summer I had some problem with the rear suspension and called Frank, but the number had been changed to one with an upstate area code. Wondering if he’d decided to retire, I drove over to his shop. It was closed. “Where’s Frank?” I asked the auto-body guy next door.
“He died,” the man replied. “He was killed in a car crash near his home about two weeks ago.”
All I could think of saying was, “What a way for a mechanic to go.”
“Yeah, I know. It was terrible. I miss him.”
I miss him too. We were never friends; the relationship was strictly business, and yet it was the humane way he conducted his business, his friendliness, patience, competence, and honesty that made him indispensable and irreplaceable. I’d never trusted a mechanic before.
Good professionals like these occupy a unique place in our lives. Seldom our friends, they are just as essential to our well-being. They support our personal infrastructure, and like our infrastructure, we never think about them until we need them. Only when they’re gone do we realize just how important they are.
Now I’m vetting mechanics, an occupational group with a reputation only slightly higher than politicians. Frank, why did you leave? I need you!

Monday, April 16, 2007


By Roger Repohl

THE BRONX, N.Y. - I won’t say them, and I won’t write them, dammit - Imus’s three little words. And I won’t spill another drop of ink or clog up the internet with another byte of commentary on them, or him, or us: Every talk show, every cultural critic, every blogger, every politician, and everybody in the car-pool lane has said it all already. The whole thing has gotten so out of hand a person doesn’t have time to obsess about Iraq anymore.
Well, maybe I’ll spill just a drop. The interesting thing to me is how almost everyone in the media and on the streets seems to delight in saying or writing those three little words while deploring them and Imus at the same time. It must be a liberating experience. Just a few weeks ago, the New York City Council passed a quixotic resolution banning the “N-word” from public discourse, and just like that the whole nation found a completely acceptable substitute, beginning with an N, no less.
Well, maybe just another little drop. Since it’s a contraction, I think the proper spelling of the third word is “’ho,’” and the plural is “’ho’s.” All the papers have been spelling it “hos,” but wouldn’t you pronounce that “hoss”?
But enough is enough, as quite enough people say these days. What I really wanted to write about was Philip Norman.
Don Imus got his start in Palmdale, Calif., in 1968, doing a crazy radio show on KUTY. He got fired for the first time in 1969, when at KJOY in Stockton he staged an Eldridge Cleaver lookalike contest.
By that time, Philip Norman had been fired too, not for being outlandish but for being outmoded. His radio show, which began on KNX in Los Angeles in 1950, was terminated in 1968 or so, when KNX replaced its eclectic, supposedly stodgy format with “News, all news, all the time news,” as my father derisively called it. Philip Norman had news, but it was no longer the news they wanted.
Norman was a raconteur. In the middle years of radio, you could find people like him all over the dial. You can hardly find a single one today. You have the shock jocks on one side and the erudite NPR interviewers on the other, but no raconteurs.
What Philip Norman did best was tell stories: “Something to amuse you, something to amaze you, and maybe a yarn or two,” he would say as his program opened. He also played a little innocuous music, and he did the commercials himself, Arthur Godfrey-style, convincing people to buy a product based on his own credibility. He had no sidekicks, no celebrity guests, no telephone call-ins. It was just him, talking through a microphone to just you.
In its first incarnation, the Phil Norman Show was called the “Housewives’ Protective League,” a daily 30-minute afternoon formula franchised to radio stations nationwide, featuring a local announcer dishing out recipes, evaluating new household gadgets, and giving husband-placating advice to moms washing clothes and baking cookies before the kids came home from school. Eventually the program acquired his own name, and he expanded it to another 30-minute segment in the evening, “Phil Norman Tonight,” where he could tell all the stories he wanted.
That’s where I found him.
As a boy, I was spellbound by his tales, and by his delivery. His topics ranged from the mundane - how to test eggs for freshness - to the bizarre - frozen fish falling from the sky in Wisconsin. He did biography and history and geography, science and music and art, and he taught me more than I learned in school - or rather, he contextualized what I’d learned, giving dry subjects a human shape and making them come alive. He did this because he could talk - a deliberate, bright baritone voice touched with naïve wonder and subtle humor, never scripted, always spontaneous. Listening to him was like going fishing with your favorite uncle: You didn’t talk because you didn’t need to; you just soaked up his words like you soaked up the sun, and resented the fish for biting.
I met Philip Norman twice. The first time was around 1964, when I rode my bicycle the five or so miles from the dreary suburb of Norwalk to the new Boys’ Market in the dreary suburb of Paramount, where he was the featured attraction for its grand opening. He sat at a card table smoking cigarettes and chatting with the customers. He didn’t look at all like I thought he would - just an ordinary man in a gray suit. But the voice was the voice, and that was what mattered.
I unfolded a page I had copied out for him, an excerpt from one of those “stranger-than-fiction” books I liked to read at that time, a pseudo-historical speculation about a satellite launched by the Confederate Army: something to amuse him, if not amaze him. He thanked me graciously and said he might use it on his show. I doubt he ever did.
The second time I met him was early in 1990 at his home in Tarzana, in the San Fernando Valley. I was doing freelance feature writing and thought he’d make a good where-is-he-now? subject. Mel Baldwin, another KNX old-timer, tracked him down for me, and he gladly invited me over for an interview.
He was 79 then, shriveled and immobilized by emphysema. “All we ever did was smoke,” he told me, “in the studio, on the air, everywhere. But I never took any cigarette ads, I’m proud to say.”
The voice came out between gulps for oxygen, but it was the voice.
His wife Helen served us snacks. “The Housewives’ Protective League!” he laughed, shaking his head and glancing playfully at her. “How far we’ve come! It’s an embarrassment now.”
I turned on my tape recorder. He was eager to talk, as if he hadn’t told a good yarn or two in a very long time. He was pleased at my attentiveness - grateful that a fan from his heyday had come back to thank him in his solitude.
I got the rest of his story. After his dismissal at KNX, he found a spot on KBIG, another L.A. station, which lasted a year, until it went easy-listening. He appeared briefly in a cooking segment on ABC-TV’s Good Morning America. He called in his chips with his friends in advertising. And then he gave up and retired.
He reminisced at length about his life in radio, but I can’t recall what he said. Tape recorders do that to the memory.
We said good-bye and I promised to keep in touch. Busy with my move to New York, I never wrote the profile. He died that November.
I still have that tape around here, buried in some box in the attic. I’m going to look for it. I need an antidote for all the replays of those three little words.

Monday, April 2, 2007


By Roger Repohl

THE BRONX, N.Y. - It’s been an erratic spring in New York so far, and the living things seem confused. In January it was so warm for so long there were daffodils blooming in Central Park. Then the cold returned, and it has remained, with few exceptions: an occasional tepid day, followed by a freeze and occasionally a light snow. The leaves on the daffodils and tulips are shriveled and brown on the edges from freezer-burn, and the blooms that have appeared are scrawny, pale, tentative.
An old adage around here is that you should plant your first crop of peas on St. Patrick’s Day. I couldn’t perform that ritual this year; on St. Patrick’s Day it snowed three inches. The obsessive crocuses, which had just started their splash of early color that gladdens the winter-weary soul, were buried. The cardinals and finches and catbirds incongruously continued singing, staking out their mating territories while perched on branches fluffy with snow.
Every winter I get anxious about the honeybees I try to keep in Genesis Park Community Garden here. When the weather is cold, bees stay inside their hives, clustering in a ball to keep warm. They’ll venture out in small numbers on sunny, temperate winter days, but it’s nearly impossible to assess a colony until spring. All winter, I wonder: Are they surviving the cold, or will they freeze to death? Do they have enough accessible honey and pollen to eat, or will they starve? Are they tolerating losses to their arachnid predators the mites, or are they being eaten alive?
Old-time beekeepers say that during the winter you can check the strength of a colony by knocking on the hive; a strong colony will respond to the disturbance with a collective baritone buzz. I’ve knocked on my hives for years; no reply. Maybe I’m hard of hearing. This year I even bought a stethoscope and put it to the sides of the hives but still could hear nothing. I also put it to my chest but couldn’t hear anything either. Maybe I don’t know how to use a stethoscope. Or maybe I’m dead.
We had a couple half-warm days last week, and I could tell by the activity outside the hives that two of the three colonies seem to have overwintered just fine. Bees were falling all over themselves at the hive entrances, shoving to get inside with big packets of pollen on their back legs. Most likely the pollen comes from the pussy willows that grow in abundance in the New York Botanical Garden and along the Bronx River. These are the first plants to bring forth huge amounts of pollen in early spring: For allergy sufferers, they are the harbinger of bad days to come, but for honeybees (and beekeepers), they are blessed relief. When you see bees entering the hive loaded with pollen, you know their queen is laying and there are lots of new mouths to be fed.
This does not mean that they are out of danger, though: A prolonged cold snap or series of rainy days that keep the foraging bees inside just when the need for food is greatest could quickly result in starvation, what they call “spring dwindling.” That’s why weird weather can lead to big problems for bee and beekeeper alike.
There was no activity outside the third hive. I looked inside; the colony was dead. I’m not exactly sure why it happened, but the queen was old and the colony was not particularly strong last fall, making it susceptible to cold and disease. One thing I do know: The cause of death was not “Colony Collapse Disorder,” the latest affliction to hit the honeybee, which even the experts are calling a mystery.
I know it wasn’t CCD because there were piles of dead bees in that hive. The evidence of CCD is exactly the opposite: The beekeeper opens the hive and finds no bees at all, dead or alive, except the queen herself, healthy and still laying, and a few young bees nursing the brood. For some reason, the foraging bees leave the hive as usual, in search of nectar and pollen, but do not return. The population of the colony “collapses” in a matter of days, and without incoming food, the remaining bees will die as well.
Beekeepers can save underpopulated colonies like these by feeding them man-made supplements - corn syrup and soy-based pollen substitutes - which bees readily take when natural nectar and pollen are unavailable. But CCD bees won’t touch them. Another inexplicable phenomenon is that neighboring bees, which normally sniff out weak or dead colonies and rob their honey stores, will not enter CCD hives for at least two weeks after they collapse.
What is going on here? The scientists cannot determine a cause as yet; all they know is the effect. It’s not a disease but a “disorder,” a description of a destructive behavioral trait. They speculate that the bees do not come home because their navigational skills are impaired. Whereas a healthy bee will fly up to three miles to a food source and return precisely to its own hive, CCD bees may lose their way.
Various causes for this syndrome have been proposed. The most likely may be some lethal cocktail of pesticides and medications that addles the bees’ brains; the least likely but not discounted may be the ingestion of genetically-engineered pollen and the microwave radiation emitted by cell-phone towers.
Another possible cause is stress. Most of the losses to CCD have occurred among industrial beekeepers, who truck thousands of colonies to seasonal pollination spots like almond and citrus groves, leave them for the blooming period, collect their money, and move on to the next site. May bouncing around the country over multiple generations possibly have led to a hereditary disorientation?
It remains to be seen if CCD is yet another dire consequence of agribusiness practices, like the e-coli on spinach or the rat poison in dog food, or if this will also affect bees like mine that stay in one spot all the time, unstressed and peaceful.
“Bees know things,” a woman involved in the organic gardening movement told me recently. “They’re wise. Maybe they’ve had enough abuse. Maybe they’re saying good-bye.”

Wednesday, March 28, 2007


By Roger Repohl

NEW YORK - Into Great Silence, a documentary on the daily life of the Carthusian monks at the Grand Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps, could have been done the formulaic way, the Ken Burns way. It could have started with a brief history of this nearly thousand-year-old Christian religious order and its founder St. Bruno, while the camera pans carefully across illuminated manuscripts. It could have drawn a computer schematic of the monastery complex, with its rows of private cells arranged like little townhouses around the chapel and refectory. It could have featured commentary by weighty scholars and wry monks. It could have trailed the inhabitants through a typical day and dropped in on the winemaster for a taste of their famous green liqueur. And the whole thing could have been bathed in Gregorian chants, with voiceover by some sonorous French actor.
This film has none of that. In fact, it is rather misleading to call it a documentary at all. Though it is a documentation, it conveys no information. It is more like a work of art, a living illuminated manuscript to be contemplated. It engages the right brain, not the left.
From the start, you know things will be different. A young monk kneels in prayer at the prie-dieu in his cell. After some minutes, he stands. More minutes pass, all in silence. Already the viewer, hot off the bustling streets, tenses up: Enough! Get on with it! But there is never enough; with few exceptions, the succeeding scenes are equally, uncomfortably long, unbroken by narration or musical background. After two hours, you’re hoping the segment you’re currently viewing will be the last, so you can return to the bustling streets, find a noisy restaurant, wolf down a big dinner and a couple drinks, make witty remarks, and convince yourself you’ve got a life.
But on and on it goes until you are sore from sitting, and then an old, blind monk appears on the screen, breaking the silence at last, telling the camera that his blindness was a blessing, that he is not afraid to die, that he doesn’t understand how anyone can find meaning in life aside from God. And the silence descends again.
When your 162 minutes of vicarious monastic confinement are over, you get up unsteadily. Your companion tries the usual post-movie line, “Well, what did you think?” You shrug and stumble on. In the noisy restaurant you flippantly say you wish you’d spent your money on an action film. And yet the images linger in your brain. For hours, maybe days, you find yourself moving more deliberately, more peacefully: The monks have leached into your system like some benevolent bacteria. You’ve returned from another world - perhaps from the other world.
This is no ordinary documentary because the German filmmaker Philip Groening (presumably no relation to Matt, the man who gave us “The Simpsons”) is no ordinary documentarian. He relentlessly pursued the idea for this project for 16 years before the reclusive community approved, and then with restrictions: no artificial light, no narration, no incidental music - and if the film were to be entered in festivals, no competition for awards.
For four months, Groening lived with the monks, following their austere routine both personally and with his camera. And something like a hermit himself, he produced the film entirely alone, as writer, director, cinematographer, sound engineer, editor.
In more than one sense, this is a “silent film.” The monks by their rule converse only when necessary for work or spiritual direction, except for their weekly communal walks in the countryside. Even necessary conversation is forbidden from night till morning, the period known as “the Great Silence,” from which the film derives its German title, Die grosse Stille (one wonders, though not too long, why the action-preposition “into” was added in English). And it seems quite intentional that the only person who speaks to the camera cannot see.
It is also a silent film cinematographically. Groening consciously employs the devices used by early filmmakers to communicate by sight alone: the lingering closeups, the meticulous attention to detail, the impressionistic use of grainy Super 8 film for certain scenes, and even the screen titles (world-renouncing Bible verses, some frequently repeated).
Images of water and light are everywhere: the red sanctuary lamp flickering in the night; the ultra-closeup of the small stone font at the chapel entrance; the rain making psychedelic rings in a pond; a monk’s metal bowl, washed and tipped on its side to dry, with a droplet of water slowly forming on the lip.
Despite the dearth of speech and music, this is not a “silent” film at all; sound, in fact, is one of its most powerful elements. Every ring of the chapel bell, every footstep, every call of bird or drop of rain pounds upon your ears as surely as it must upon the monks’ own. It is only when one does not speak that one begins to hear.
Repetition is another device Groening uses to evoke the timeless experience of monastic life. The film starts out in winter, with stunning aerial shots of the monastery buried in snow, moves through the seasons, and concludes once more in winter. Within the walls, the daily routine goes on: Over and over, the monk on kitchen detail delivers meals to his brothers’ cells from a wooden push-cart; over and over, the community assembles in the pitch-dark chapel to chant the Night Office; over and over, monks are seen alone in their cells, meditating and reading and eating and washing their cups and bowls.
Groening also gives ample glimpses of monastic labor: the old bearded tailor, cutting a novice’s habit out of whole cloth; the ruddy-faced barber, shaving his fellows’ heads with an electric shears while keeping a full head of hair on himself; monks splitting firewood for their cells; the prior at his desk, poring over paperwork; a frail old man stripped of his habit, receiving a massage of salve from the gentle hands of the young infirmarian.
There are some diversions as well, one or two, charming in their simplicity: a brother in the barn, talking to (with?) a collection of demanding cats; and in the second winter, a long-distance take of the monks skiing down a tall hill in their white habits and on just their boots, tumbling into the snow amid gales of laughter.
The chronicle is broken several times by head-shots of individual monks, held for ten long seconds each and grouped in threes: living portraits, as it were, and quite obviously an ironic play on the “talking heads” of the conventional documentary. The subjects sit before the camera silently, self-consciously, solemn-faced, blinking. Unlike the rest of the film, in which the camera all but disappears, this at first seems a blatant invasion of their privacy, an attempt to steal their souls. But eventually you overcome your own embarrassment and begin to examine those faces, looking for a hint of why such ordinary-looking men are doing something so extraordinary. In the end, they conquer: they’ve not only kept their own souls, they’ve exposed yours.
For most of us multitasking moderns, nervously checking our cell phones while punching up tunes on our iPods and slugging down a Starbucks, this film is a test of endurance, demanding a focus and attentiveness few now possess. It reveals just how far our crazed pursuit of everything all the time masks our meaninglessness and keeps us chronically depressed. As the verse from the Hebrew Bible, displayed repeatedly on the screen, has it: God is not in the whirlwind but in a whisper.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007


By Roger Repohl

THE BRONX, N.Y. - It’s all in the story you tell. The story need not be true, or even plausible. In fact, it could be objectively absurd, but if you tell it convincingly to an audience begging to be convinced, even absurdity does not matter. People will eat it up and digest it into their worldview, and it will make them do, or allow others to do, things they would formerly have thought unthinkable.
It’s especially like that with societies under threat. Stories can lead to genocide and to suicide bombers, to precipitous wars and to interminable occupations. And oftentimes the identical story can be perfectly convincing to opposing sides.
Take the story told by the so-called “mastermind of 9/11,” Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, to the American military’s “combatant status review tribunal,” a transcript of which was released last week. In it, this major operative in the Al Qaeda terrorist network (commonly known by his initials, “KSM”) either admitted or asserted, depending on the reader’s point of view, that he was a principal player in over 30 plots against the West. Some were realized, including 9/11 (“responsible from A to Z,” he noted) and the Bali nightclub bombing of 2002. Others were proposed, including the assassinations of Pope John Paul II and former President Jimmy Carter, anthrax and dirty-bomb development and deployment, and the destruction of the Panama Canal, the Empire State Building, Heathrow Airport, Big Ben, nuclear power plants, and U.S. and Israeli embassies worldwide.
Had he been truly imaginative, KSM might have also thrown in calling forth Saddam Hussein from the tomb, posting on You Tube the untouched photos of Rudy Giuliani in drag, going undercover as Hillary Clinton’s hair stylist, and raising the mean atmospheric temperature five degrees by the year 2010.
Why did the Pentagon release this document, to revive our flagging post-9/11 paranoia? Could be. For the paranoid, the evidence presented here was overwhelming. It fed the narrative that America is under siege by that omnipresent octopus Al Qaeda. It did not matter that KSM’s admissions, or assertions, were plainly megalomaniacal; for the true believer, as a medieval Latin poem has it, faith supplies where senses fail.
The same, and then some, can be said of KSM’s disciples. Emerging miraculously after four years of CIA detention in secret spots throughout the world and presumably subjected to torture by his interrogators, he remained unbroken, even triumphant. To his admirers, this was not a confession, it was a manifesto, full of defiance and ironic wit, boasting of his exploits and sniping at his captors, comparing himself to none other than George Washington, a fellow “enemy combatant.” His story fed their narrative too, burnishing the myth of the agile guerilla Al Qaeda, taking down the armored giant with five smooth stones.
There has been a parallel story coming from the other side for over six years now: the “War on Terror.” Our government could have treated the 9/11 attacks as it had treated all previous acts of terrorism, including the 1993 World Trade Center bombing: as a crime. It could have utilized the FBI, the CIA, and the intelligence operations of almost every country in the world, then outraged by this disaster and sympathetic to the United States, to ferret out Osama bin Laden, KSM, and their collaborators, round them up, and deliver them to the U.S. for fair and speedy trials before juries of ordinary citizens. With that, a major part of this sordid business would have been over by now. That revolting cast of characters would have had their day in open court, legitimately prosecuted and defended, with evidence presented and refuted, verdicts reached, and sentences passed. The American system of justice, long admired as a paradigm of fairness, would have been vindicated on an international scale.
Instead, the Bush administration chose to name the 9/11 attacks an act of war. In doing so, an entirely different set of players was called upon: the military and its apparatus. Fueled by the myth that this was actually a war - even though there was no nation to confront, no army to fight - the might of the world’s remaining superpower was brought to bear on a phantom. Not used to fighting phantoms, the military had to objectify “terror,” first in Afghanistan, the very sump that had drained the Soviet Union dry just a few short years before, and then in Iraq, the hapless target of that sub-myth, the “Axis of Evil.”
The dismal result in both cases was not so much the product of poor planning, as is often suggested, but the product of a great army engaged in battle with a concept. In order to give it flesh, like staging a Greek tragedy, it was forced to play everything out in military terms, regardless of how unsuitable or ineffective.
At the heart of all the confusion about the relevance of the Geneva Conventions, the status of the detainees, the suspension of due process, the internal surveillance, and even the Presidential suggestion that the best way to support the war effort is to go shopping, is the straining attempt to make believable the myth that “we are at war.” This is nonsense, and it all could have been avoided if Al Qaeda and the host of similar terrorist rings had been treated as international criminals, more like the Mafia than a nation.
In his statement, KSM proudly calls himself an “enemy combatant,” but he is very self-aware; he knows he is adroitly exploiting Bush’s own megalomaniacal vision of himself as “the War President.” In perhaps intentional broken English that obviously befuddled the transcribers, he repeatedly emphasizes that we are playing a deadly game of “language”: “You know very well there are language for any war,” the transcript reads at one point; and at another, “But now language also we have language for the war.”
It’s all in the story you tell.


By Roger Repohl

THE BRONX, N.Y. - Sorry, but I’m a bit disoriented at this moment.
It’s 6:45 a.m. on Monday, March 12, and it is pitch dark outside. My body feels heavy; I’m nodding off at my desk. Last Friday at this time the sun was up and running, and so was I.
It’s Daylight Saving Time, and it will take at least a week for my internal clock to adjust. It’s jet lag without going anywhere, a hangover without drinking anything. Last night I was so exhausted I went to bed an hour early (springing ahead, that’s two hours early) and then lay there wide awake - for two hours.
This isn’t sleep-deprivation from having lost that hour in the middle of the night; I feel the same way when the time changes in the fall and we gain an hour. It’s the rebellion of the body’s clock.
Unlike some chronological purists, I am not opposed to DST; I am only opposed to the change. The way we keep time no longer has much to do with the position of the sun at 12 o’clock noon anyway; it has to do with our own convenience, with our national patterns of life, with maximizing sunlight for our own purposes. What is 12 o’clock noon to an orbiting astronaut?
Since we’ve now added yet another month to DST, leaving only four months of so-called “Standard Time,” why not go all the way and made Daylight Time the year-round standard?
We’ve been tinkering with time-changes for almost a century now. During World War I - following the lead of their foes Germany and Austria - Great Britain, most of Europe, and the United States all enacted laws advancing their clocks by one hour for seven months of the year, for the same alleged reason we do it today: to conserve electricity. After the war, President Woodrow Wilson proposed making the change permanent, but Congress repealed the statute over his veto because most of the country despised it. In 1942, Franklin Roosevelt put the nation on year-round DST - then called “War Time” - which people either tolerated or enjoyed until September of 1945, when the decision to observe it was returned to state and local jurisdictions. In 1963, the Uniform Time Act created a national DST from May through October, though some states like Arizona and Indiana requested and got exemptions. In 1973, in response to the Arab oil embargo, the Emergency Daylight Saving Time Energy Conservation Act extended DST for 15 months straight, until complaints from agribusiness and fears that children were at risk of being assaulted or struck by cars on their way to school in the dark forced its recission. In 1986, the spring change was moved to the first Sunday of April, and two years ago, Congress mandated the present arrangement, again in the name of energy conservation.
Whew. And never to be outdone, the California Energy Commission in 2000 proposed a Double Daylight Saving Time, under which the state would in effect go on Mountain Time, one hour ahead of Pacific Standard Time in the winter months and two hours ahead in the summer, claiming electricity savings of between 0.2 percent and 0.5 percent. The state senate petitioned the U.S. Congress to approve the scheme, but it was ignored.
Besides energy conservation, other arguments for extending DST include reducing traffic fatalities and cutting down crime. While substantiating data are skimpy in all cases, there is an inherent logic to these assertions. The unpopularity of DST after World War I came from a society that was still mostly rural and small-town; in the main, people retained a traditional sun-based way of life, getting up with the light and going to bed shortly after dark. It is not like that today; we rise and retire at the same times all year long. For most of us, except for farmers and morning joggers or golfers, an extra hour of afternoon sun, even in the dead of winter, more than compensates for having to eat breakfast and get out the door in the dark. Not only do children have more time to play outdoors, but it makes sense that traffic accidents are more likely to occur in evening darkness, when almost everybody is active, than in morning darkness, when the activity is more spread out. And criminals, of course, are not known to be morning persons.
What would Pacific Daylight Time be like on December 21, the shortest day of the year? According to the U.S. Naval Observatory, in Los Angeles the sun would rise at 7:55, not 6:55, and set at 5:48, not 4:48. As a northern contrast, in Seattle sunrise would occur at 8:55 and sunset at 5:20. Does it make any difference to you?
Farmers’ objections to DST seem to be based more on the time change than on winter darkness. As one Canadian farmer quoted on the website complained, “The chickens do not adapt to the changed clock until several weeks have gone by, so the first week of April and the last week of October are very frustrating for us.” You’d think a farmer would adjust his schedule to the chickens’ instead of the other way around, but it’s the adjustment that’s the issue here.
And beyond the farm, the adjustment is the issue too. The cost to businesses and to government for everything from reprogramming computers to resetting traffic lights has been estimated to run in the billions of dollars.
Not to mention the inconvenience to all of us in adjusting the multitude of our own conveniences - the wristwatches, the wall clocks, the car clocks, the clock radios, the answering machines, the microwaves, the stove. There have been years when I’ve discovered some appliance still displaying Standard Time in June, like an Easter egg you detect under your couch months after the family hunt.
And then there’s that clock in our bodies, which, like the farmer’s chickens, doesn’t change with the push of a button.
So I say: Daylight Saving Time, all the time.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need a nap.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007


By Roger Repohl

THE BRONX, N.Y. - Over the last couple years, I've become a JetBlue fan. I like the low fares. I like flying in to tiny Long Beach Airport, with its yesteryear feel of short security lines, congestion-free vehicular traffic, one little easy-to-navigate concourse, and boarding and deplaning from a ladder on the tarmac. I like the planes’ comfortable seats and personal TV screens (on my last trip, I divided my time between checking the altitude, airspeed, and location, watching Cesar Millan work miracles with unruly dogs, and salivating over Rachel Ray - I mean her recipes, of course). The only thing I don’t like is blue potato chips.
So I was distressed to see that Blue got a black eye from a knockout ice-storm at JFK here two weeks ago, with planes immobilized for hours on the taxiway and hundreds of flights canceled for days thereafter, even when the weather turned nice and sunny. How on earth could things have gone so wrong, gotten so out of hand?
Five days into the crisis, with the cancellations still mounting, the founder and CEO of JetBlue stepped up to the plate. In an interview with the New York Times, David Neeleman called himself “humiliated and mortified” by the systemic breakdown in service. The ice-storm was not the cause, it was the trigger. Flushed with success and ambition in its eight-year existence, the airline had expanded exponentially, constantly introducing new destinations and rapidly becoming the dominant carrier at JFK, its hub. I watched it grow with every flight I took, and I did wonder whether in its exuberance and popularity it was growing too fast for its own good.
It was. The superstructure was dazzling, but the infrastructure was not keeping up. A few planes stuck on the ice had a ripple effect on the entire system. If planes couldn’t land, they couldn’t take off, and then it didn’t matter if the weather cleared. Pilots and crews were twiddling their thumbs in homes and hotels everywhere, waiting for orders, but JetBlue’s inadequate tracking and operations systems didn’t know where they were.
“We had so many people in the company who wanted to help who weren’t trained to help,” Neeleman told The Times. “We had an emergency control center full of people who didn’t know what to do. I had flight attendants sitting in hotel rooms for three days who couldn’t get a hold of us. I had pilots e-mailing me saying, ‘I’m available, what do I do?’”
Neeleman admitted all this, and in highly personal language, too: “I had flight attendants . . ., I had pilots.” He explained everything to the public frankly and simply, without obfuscation or excuse. He announced that he was taking immediate action to restructure the organization and train corporate managers to move into operations when needed. He also implemented a compensation policy for delayed passengers, long discussed by both airlines and Congress but never acted upon.
“This is going to be a different company because of this,” he declared. “I can flap my lips all I want. Talk is cheap. Watch us.”
Dave Neeleman for President!
Beyond JetBlue’s woes, consider the country’s. In more than an analogical way, we have a JetBlue situation with Iraq, with health care, with Social Security, with the environment, with New Orleans. There is a massive breakdown in communications and management at all levels of the federal government. In each of these challenges, some predictable, others unforeseen, we are stuck on the ground with vast resources of human ingenuity eager to help but unable to get through.
And the problem starts at the top.
Last December, Jonathan Alter wrote in Newsweek: “The history of the American presidency is the story of the character and temperament of the man in the Oval Office coursing through thousands of smaller decisions, often thousands of miles away. If the president is supple and open-minded, those decisions made many layers below him are more likely to be agile and empirical. If he’s stubborn and too sure that he has all the answers, the modeling of his behavior is likely to result in decisions you would ground your teenager for.”
It remains to be seen if JetBlue can pull out of its tailspin, but the swiftness of Neeleman’s response and his acceptance of personal responsibility give a good indication that it can and will. He seems to be demonstrating the qualities Alter sees in an effective executive: “The temperament of the chief leaches into the performance of functionaries he has never met.”
Imagine if we had a President who would admit to the nation that he was humiliated and mortified by the errors in his administration’s foreign policy and was taking immediate steps to correct them. Imagine a President who hadn’t spent three years parroting “Stay the course” and another year insisting he was “open to suggestions,” while continuing the same failed policies. Imagine a ”decider” who actually made decisions rather than letting events decide for themselves. Imagine a President who offered a plan for restitution and healing to his constituents, his “customers,” whose tax dollars have been sucked down the drain while they’ve sat helpless on the runway.
Every major issue facing this country will be stalled for the next two years. Alter writes: “Bush did not set out to miss the mark, of course, but his inattention to the execution of his grand ideas has had fatal consequences.” Neeleman did not set out to miss the mark either, and he also let the operation of his organization slip out of his control. But unlike Neeleman, who quickly faced the facts, admitted his guilt, and moved vigorously to change, this administration is incapable of such forthrightness. It will persist in its comprehensive inattention, self-justification, and excuse-making until it is finally swept away.
Candidates may want to look to David Neeleman for guidance on what America really needs in a leader.


February 26, 2007

By Roger Repohl

The docent at the American Folk Art Museum in New York led her group to the first room of its major exhibition of the works of Martín Ramírez - 97 pieces displayed over three floors. She stopped at a wall chockablock with 17 cartoonish pencil-and-crayon drawings of the very same subject: the stereotypical Mexican bandolero with sombrero and kerchief, astride a rearing horse and brandishing a pistol, his chest crisscrossed with belts of bullets. The figures are framed as on a stage, with curtains and columns of innumerable parallel lines and complex parquet floor patterns of closely foreshortened lines. Above the stage are various abstract adornments reminiscent of the old silent movie houses, around which swirl still more concentric lines. Each of the pictures is unique - a different floor pattern, a different posture of horse and rider, a different palette of colors - and yet they are all the same.
“What do these drawings tell you about the artist?” the docent asked.
“He was Mexican?” one patron ventured.
“He liked horses?” another guessed.
I knew what the drawings told me, from the second I saw them.
“He’s crazy,” I said under my breath.
No doubt about it: obsessive-compulsive. Of the 300 works that survive, almost all of them focus on only three themes: the horseman, the railroad, and the Virgin Mary. And almost all are filled in and filled up with those dizzying lines, to the point that by the end of the exhibit you may well go crazy yourself. The medical experts first diagnosed him as manic-depressive, then settled on “dementia praecox, catatonic form.” In fact, his first exhibit, organized by his doctor and shown without mentioning his name, was called “The Art of the Schizophrene.” But no matter. It’s obviously obsessive-compulsive.
Martín Ramírez produced these works, and hundreds of earlier ones that were destroyed as worthless, while living as a patient in two California mental hospitals. All of them might have ended up in the dumpster were it not for Tarmo Pasto, a psychologist and painter with an interest in the art of the insane. The doctor met him in 1948 at DeWitt Hospital in Auburn and encouraged and collected his work until Ramírez died there in 1963.
Over the years, Pasto organized four showings which sparked little interest. In 1955, he sent several pieces to the Guggenheim Museum in New York, where they languished in the archives for forty years until a curatorial intern came upon them and brought them to the superiors’ attention. In 1968, he sold most of his collection to a Chicago artist, Jim Nutt, and the dealer Phyllis Kind. The time for “folk art” was dawning, and the two made a fortune. The Ramírez family, including his granddaughter and great-grandchildren who attended the opening of this exhibit in January, don’t own a single Ramírez; they’re now seeking funding to buy one for themselves. The going price for a drawing: $100,000 and up.
Discovering exactly who Martín Ramírez was - his history as well as his personality - took years of investigative work, mostly by the sociologists Victor and Kristin Espinosa. The scanty medical records indicate that he was found dazed and incoherent by the police in 1931, on a street somewhere in San Joaquin County. Judged insane, he was committed to the state asylum in Stockton. He escaped three times; twice he was apprehended, and the third time he came back by himself, presumably concluding that life was better, or at least safer, in the hospital. In 1948 he was transferred to a new facility in Auburn. Only once did any relative visit him; that was in 1952, when a nephew from Mexico came up to ask if he’d like to go home to his wife. He declined. “I’ll see her in the Valley of Jehoshaphat,” he said.
Home was the state of Jalisco, Mexico, where he was born in 1895. Some of his relatives still live there. In his youth, they say, he was a splendid horseman. He got married, had four children, and bought a farm. In 1925, to better support his family, he went north to California. There he worked in the mines and on the railroad, sending home money and letters illustrated with little drawings. Caught up in the failed Cristero rebellion of the late 1920’s and taking the side of Catholic revolutionaries against an anti-religious regime, his family lost their property. After that news, his communications ceased. The family next heard from him, indirectly, in 1948, as he was being transferred from Stockton to DeWitt: The staff sent them a pile of his drawings, which they tacked around the house and on the porch, and which, when they got too faded or weatherbeaten, they threw out.
There was no such thing as art therapy in those days, so Ramírez did art therapy on himself. Until Dr. Pasto took an interest in him, he used whatever materials he could scrounge. His medium was primarily pencil, colored and shaded with charcoal, shoe polish, and crayons melted down and applied with match-sticks. His drawing surface was paper bags or torn-out pages of books and magazines pieced together with glue he made from the cafeteria’s mashed potatoes, cut with water and saliva. This “quilting” process could get rather large; some of his works are eight feet tall or six feet long. Dr. Pasto provided Ramírez with art supplies, but apparently he preferred the old ways. Many of the drawings in the exhibit - all from the time the doctor discovered him until his death, some dated by the doctor in ballpoint pen by month and year - continue to be done on brown bags. Some are on magazine ads, which he seemed to take as an object of conquest (ads for refrigerators and shirts are turned upside down and drawn over thickly, seemingly with a mind to obliterate them) or as a theme to incorporate (an ad for the Rock Island Railway shows an engineer in the distance waving out of the cabin of his diesel locomotive to a cutaway view of a cowgirl and the upper portion of her horse in the near corner of the page; he added adjoining sheets of paper bag and finished out its hindquarters and legs himself).
Ramírez’s art is essentially cartoon, yet it is cartoon with a keen eye for the real. Though he draws fingers like cigars, his horses with their twisted bodies convincingly suggest the animal’s power and grace in motion. He is particularly good at buildings; churches and skyscrapers have the symmetry and bulk of an architectural rendering.
And there is no doubt to me that many of his pieces are cartoons by intention. Movies were surely the major form of recreation in mental hospitals of the time, and Ramírez observed them well. This is especially true of his second major obsession, trains. Another perfect occasion for more parallel lines and crunching perspective, tracks appear from the vanishing point of a womblike tunnel in the top left corner, snake to the bottom, and travel straightly until they meet an insurmountable obstacle - the right edge of the paper; from there they are deflected upward, vanishing into another tunnel. His steam locomotives and their cars have a personality, like those puffing, dancing, grimacing objects in Max Fleischer’s surreal animations of the twenties and thirties.
His horsemen, too, framed as they are by stage curtains and prancing on parquet floors, are obviously part movie house and part childhood memory.
The third of his obsessions is the Virgin Mary. The curator has titled these pieces “Madonnas,” but properly speaking they are almost all in the artistic genre of the Baroque “Immaculate Conception” commonly seen in Catholic churches in Spain and its former colonies - the crowned Virgin standing above a crescent moon and crushing the Satan-serpent underfoot. All the drawings have similar mask-like faces, with big-lashed eyes and quizzical smiles but each is uniquely adorned in robes of lavish patterns, some distinctly Mexican, some recalling the dresses of magazine models and movie stars.
Though so many of the themes are the same, there is always some little creature of whimsy to surprise and amuse, peering out of a corner or replicated in rows in a border - a smiling cat that looks like an armadillo, an androgynous deer with huge antlers and a pronounced vagina.
And after three floors, just when you think you couldn’t stand to see another parallel line, you come upon something very different: a true Madonna, a girl with a winsome, realistic face, blond hair, and a billowy embroidered blouse, smiling at you from an arched niche or grotto. Sadly, the piece is undated. Could this have been one of Ramírez’s last works, showing a leap forward in his technique and maybe a retrieval of his sanity?
But back to that wall of horsemen on the first floor. Why did I immediately identify this man as crazy? I’d read the reviews of the exhibit with their biographical sketches; was my mind already predisposed to this conclusion? To some degree, of course. But there is something in the work of those whom the experts now call “outsider artists” that reveals their inner states. Practitioners of “high art” are formally trained and thus, like other professionals, often abstracted from their own personalities. But it’s not so much that people like Ramírez or Henry Darger or Adolf Wölfli or Howard Finster are untrained; it’s that they see differently from the rest of us. The same section of their brain that makes them schizophrenic or fanatically religious pours itself out on the canvas or the paper bag. What you see in one of their works may be what they see all the time.
“Martín Ramírez” will be at the American Folk Art Museum, 45 West 53rd Street, New York City, through April 29. It then travels to the Milwaukee Art Museum, October 6 through January 6, 2008.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

U Pick 'Em

February 12, 2007

By Roger Repohl

THE BRONX, N.Y. - Parlor game: Name the people currently running for President.
I did this at a dinner party recently, and it went like this: “Hillary.” “Obama.” “‘Articulate Joe’ Biden!” “Kucinich, right? Or was that the last time?” “McCain.” “The mayor of America.” “The mayor of New York?” “Um, ah, there’s a dozen more. Why can’t I think of them?”
Why not, indeed.
Coming up short at the dinner table were not only the “Why-are-they-even-doing-this?” bunch like Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack and former Arkansas Governor Tom Huckabee, but also some “I-knew-thats” like John Edwards, Mitt Romney, and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. If you can’t remember them, is it because they’re forgettable?
It’s less than a year before New Hampshire and the Iowa Caucuses, probably followed by all those proposed February primaries, California’s included. By that time, some candidates will be forgotten, some you’ll wish you could forget, and one that you’ll remember in the voting booth. It all depends, but on what?
Joe Biden had it right, though in a very wrong context. The operative word in this campaign really is “articulate,” both as adjective and as verb.
The root word in Latin means “join” or “put together.” The winning candidate will be the one who can join comprehensive and detailed proposals on the crucial concerns of the nation with a rhetoric and personal image that unites and energizes the nation to implement them.
In past elections of recent memory, it was enough to nourish the base and entice the undecideds with slogans and negative ads and vague promises, but all that has changed, and with astonishing speed. Two years ago, very credible scholars were writing articles and books predicting a permanent Republican hold on all branches of government, thanks to the mastery of political vocabulary by strategists like Karl Rove. All of that imploded in last November’s election. The sturdy base of “family values” and the agenda of the Christian Right, once seen as a juggernaut, was engulfed by Iraq; the real family value now is to get the troops back to their families.
But that isn’t all. Another political vocabulary is emerging, also at astonishing speed. The whole conceptual infrastructure of “conservatism,” born of Goldwater, fed by Reagan, furthered by Gingrich, and enthroned by Bush, is destroying itself by its own hand. Beginning with the proposed privatization of Social Security, more and more people started feeling uneasy. They started to see that the rhetorical ploy of the “ownership society” was just another word for a final, multi-pronged attack on social and fiscal policies and institutions that they didn’t know they cherished - or depended upon - so much. And now the attack is coming not just from politicians but from their own employers: Job security is being made laughable by downsizing, and for those that are left, medical and pension plans are being cut back or eliminated.
Add to that the growing realization that global warming is now not just a theory but a threat, and a new, old vocabulary begins to appear: a vocabulary of “the common good.”
The politician who will succeed in this election will be the one who can fearlessly articulate a vision of the common good and develop “put-together” practical proposals for its realization.
What few of the dozen or more hopefuls yet seem to recognize is just how ready for the new vocabulary Americans are. Most indicative is the shift in attitude toward health care, another sign of the Baby Boom Bulge. As the first Boomers cross the threshold of sixty, faced with the present burdens of medical treatment for their parents and the increasingly imminent prospect of the same for themselves, a single-payer system loses its ideological onus and begins to look eminently sensible. The same shift applies to Social Security and pension plans - what people approaching old age want is not options but guarantees, not risky gambles but peace of mind.
Other aspects of the common good are taking on a bright light as well, especially regarding the environment, construed in its widest sense. It is now clear that any attempt to reverse climate change calls for a sweeping national policy, but that is not all; there is also the personal environment. Population growth demands creating livable cities with effective and convenient public transportation and a modernized infrastructure; it also demands preserving and expanding parkland and endangered natural spaces. Proposals for major public works projects no longer seem pariahs but prophetic.
So which of the pack in the presidential race will survive the shakedown? The ones who can articulate, both programmatically and personally, the new vocabulary of the common good. Single-issue candidates like family-values Brownback and anti-immigrant Tancredi are now anachronisms. Image-only candidates like Giuliani, “Mr. 9/11,” will eventually be judged by the sum of their public life, not just one day of it. Hillary says she is “listening,” but we are as sick of listeners as we are of Deciders. Biden, bright but neither articulate nor clean, broke his leg before leaving the gate. Obama has a vision, but is it just a vision of himself? Kucinich has the vision, but the articulation of the self-righteous. McCain and Romney run without a base. Edwards shows some daring, but carries Kerry’s baggage. Al Gore is more tarred by Clinton than Hillary herself. Richardson, with his national and international expertise, could be the dark horse, if he can only stay away from Comedy Central.
Well, it’s your turn. You pick ’em.

Published in the Hermosa Beach, Calif. Easy Reader, February 15, 2007.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Speaking in Code

January 29, 2007

by Roger Repohl

THE BRONX, N.Y. - At first I was disappointed that the assembled Congress didn’t react to the President’s State of the Union address last week the way the British Parliament does to the appearances of its Prime Minister: no cheers or jeers, just the traditional polite interruptions of applause and ovations (61 of them this time, reporters calculated, up a notch from last year’s 59 but a far cry from 2001’s 87). But this is America, and America has its civil religion, and civil religion has its rituals, and rituals are always the same. So the call-and-response occurred predictably, liturgically - “up and down, like marionettes,” New York Times columnist Bob Herbert derisively described it.
There was actually something consoling about it: an hour of amity, a respite from reality, like a corrupt priest at Sunday Mass or the black sheep at Thanksgiving dinner. “We always give the President a warm welcome,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi before the event, “as our guest in the chamber.” She’s surely had a few black sheep at Thanksgivings of her own.
And like Thanksgiving dinner, the formality of this ritual never prevents people from communicating their feelings; they just do it in code. “Pass the cranberry” never only means “Pass the cranberry.” The averted eyes, the hunched back, the muted voice all say, “What are you doing here? Why do we go through this every year?”
It was something like that with the speech. The Congress spoke in code: The total actual time of applause was way down from previous years, and most of it went not to ethanol or Iraq but to Nancy Pelosi for being Madam Speaker and New York subway savior Wesley Autrey for being America’s latest Citizen Hero.
The President also spoke in code, his ghostwriters carefully crafting his rhetoric to elicit an ovation even though the actual content demanded stony silence.
Behind the President, framed in the TV screen like deacon and subdeacon, were Vice President Cheney and Speaker Pelosi, both conscious of their visibility to 45.5 million viewers and communicating in their own codes. Cheney sat impassively, deflecting attention to the President, though everyone knows who’s really been deciding for the Decider all these years.
But since it’s hard for 70 percent of the public to look at the President without cringing, the eye instinctively moved to the Speaker. Kate Zernike of The New York Times reported that to prepare for the event, Pelosi’s staff had coached her “to keep a neutral face, warning her that the cameras . . . would capture any raised eyebrow or pursed lip.”
The coaching worked in one respect: She remained resolutely deadpan for most of the 50-minute exercise.
But although she kept her eyebrows down, she couldn’t do the same with her eyelids. Throughout the speech she was blinking maddeningly - a quirk not lost to Letterman and YouTube, and now the latest joke of the blogspot. Was it the lights? Was it her contact lenses? Or was the Speaker speaking in Morse code, offering running commentary?
Though I was fairly good at the code as a boy, I’ve forgotten everything but S-O-S (never know when you’ll need that), so I’ll take a guess at what messages Speaker P (• — — •) may have been sending:
“And tonight I have the high privilege and distinct honor of my own as the first president to begin the State of the Union message with these words: Madam Speaker.”
• — — •: “Thank you. Stop clenching your teeth.”
“Unemployment is low, inflation is low, wages are rising.”
• — — •: “That’s right, put the good news up front. That’s about all the good news you have, and it isn’t because of you anyway. Now go sign our minimum wage bill.”
“I will submit a budget that eliminates the federal deficit within the next five years.”
• — — •: “Not with your tax cuts it won’t. Read my lids: Some new taxes.”
“With enough good sense and good will, you and I can fix Medicare and Medicaid and save Social Security.”
• — — •: “You mean that’s all it takes?”
“The No Child Left Behind Act has worked for America’s children.”
• — — •: “Except for those it was supposed to reach.”
“I propose a standard tax deduction for health insurance that will be like the standard tax deduction for dependents.”
• — — •: “A tax deduction? Come on. How many will buy health insurance for a few bucks off their taxes? And what about people whose income is so low they don’t pay any taxes? And what you aren’t saying is that you want to make employer-paid insurance taxable income. That’ll go as far as privatized Social Security did.”
“Let us have a serious, civil, and conclusive debate so that you can pass, and I can sign, comprehensive immigration reform into law.”
• — — •: “I will stand up and clap now.”
“For too long our nation has been dependent on foreign oil. And this dependence leaves us more vulnerable to hostile regimes, and to terrorists.”
• — — •: “This is your reason for an energy policy? Hasn’t Arnold told you what the real enemy is?”
“It’s in our vital interest to diversify American’s energy supply, and the way forward is through technology.”
• — — •: “Oh. Like ‘the way forward’ in Iraq?”
“These technologies will help us be better stewards of the environment, and they will help us to confront the serious challenge of global climate change.”
• — — •: “Well, well, well. You finally pronounced those ugly Democrat words.”
“To win the war on terror we must take the fight to the enemy.”
• — — •: “Excuse me, ah, but is a war on terror really a war? And who are the enemy anymore, anyway?”
“America is still a nation at war.”
• — — •: “Funny, it sure doesn’t look like a nation at war, except for our troops. And they’re not fighting a war, they’re trying to stop the Iraqis’ own war.”
“This is not the fight we entered in Iraq, but it is the fight we are in.”
• — — •: “Aren’t you admitting that the war authorization we gave you expired when you declared ‘mission accomplished’ four years ago?”
“The state of our union is strong.”
• — — •: “You finally mention the topic of your speech in your closing paragraph? Don’t you believe it yourself?
“God bless.” • — — •: “A beautiful, universalist sentiment. No ‘America’ this time. I like it, but I’m glad you’re through. My contacts are killing me."