Bob Schwartz

Music: Ronnie Spector is gone and hearts break

Ronnie Spector died this past week.

It profanes talking about her by starting with Phil Spector, but it is an unavoidable preface.

Phil Spector was a genius record producer who changed pop music. He helped turn Ronnie’s extraordinary talent into memorable hits with the Ronettes. He was also a very strange man who abused women, including Ronnie after marrying her, and including another woman he murdered.

Adolescent boys (boys of any age) loved Ronnie Spector. Crush love. It was the pure voice, strong but soft, kittenish but grown cat. It was the songs, tuneful and romantic, about how she wanted you (Be My Baby) or was looking for someone like you (Walking in the Rain) or knew that after you split up it would be better than ever (Best Part of Breaking Up).

Just as much, it was the look. There was and are plenty of beautiful sexy women around, some in your real life, more in the world of entertainment. But none of them looked like Ronnie Spector. Maybe the beauty was a bonus on top of the voice, maybe the other way round. Either way, it is a gift that is cherished.

November 2020: “What 240,000 Covid Deaths Look Like”

In November 2020 I was frustrated about the American response to covid. There was a hopeful prospect of a vaccine, but in the meantime, some leaders and citizens were not at all helping. So I posted this, headlined with the above photo of 1,000 matchsticks for those who think better with pictures:

“Right now there at least 240,000 Covid deaths and 10 million Covid cases counted in America. Without major behavioral and policy interventions, there may be 400,000 deaths and 1 million cases a week by the end of year. Yet some governors insist on staying the course, and some people think that even the current restrictions are too much.”

By the end of the following year (2021), even with vaccines, there were about 1 million deaths, and we are on our way to 1 million cases a day, not a week. And, since some things never change, “some governors insist on staying the course, and some people think that even the current restrictions are too much.”

Please feel free to pass this picture on for those who understandably have trouble conceiving big numbers:

1,000 matchsticks X 1,000 = 1 million

Covid War: America has never suffered a war on its entire homeland and we are not doing well with this one

Only once since the War of Independence has there been war on much of the American homeland. And even the armed conflict of the Civil War was not everywhere.

The Covid War is everywhere in America. We talk about battles we have won, we talk about the tide of war turning, but the truth is we are up against a brutal enemy we still don’t completely understand and that hasn’t been stopped yet.

In places around the world, there are two things well understood about a homeland engulfed in war: it involves suffering and sacrifice. Of course the citizens of occupied nations are exhausted. Of course their lives have been turned upside down and inside out. Of course they have suffered and sacrificed. That’s what war on the homeland is like. But they don’t have the luxury of pretending that the war is nearly over, based on some magical thinking or spinning of numbers. Because exhausted as they are, aching for things to get back to normal, the enemy is still right outside their door.

The first snow of 2022: Time passes slowly

First Snow 2022

Time passes slowly up here in the mountains
We sit beside bridges and walk beside fountains
Catch the wild fishes that float through the stream
Time passes slowly when you’re lost in a dream

Once I had a sweetheart, she was fine and good-lookin’
We sat in her kitchen while her mama was cookin’
Stared out the window to the stars high above
Time passes slowly when you’re searchin’ for love

Ain’t no reason to go in a wagon to town
Ain’t no reason to go to the fair
Ain’t no reason to go up, ain’t no reason to go down
Ain’t no reason to go anywhere

Time passes slowly up here in the daylight
We stare straight ahead and try so hard to stay right
Like the red rose of summer that blooms in the day
Time passes slowly and fades away

Bob Dylan, Time Passes Slowly (1970)

Of course, if you follow just the science, time actually passes faster in the mountains than it does at sea level:

“Let’s begin with a simple fact: time passes faster in the mountains than it does at sea level.

“The difference is small but can be measured with precision timepieces that can be bought today on the internet for a few thousand dollars. With practice, anyone can witness the slowing down of time. With the timepieces of specialized laboratories, this slowing down of time can be detected between levels just a few centimeters apart: a clock placed on the floor runs a little more slowly than one on a table.”

Carlo Rovelli, The Order of Time

You may follow just the science, or you may follow just the poetry, or you may follow the first snow of the year. You may believe that no two snowflakes are alike, each one unique, even though we can’t know that for certain since we do not observe each and every snowflake. There is the wisdom from writer William Goldman who observed Hollywood and concluded “Nobody knows anything.” He also wrote The Princess Bride, one of the most magical and unscientific stories ever. Maybe knowledge is sometimes overrated or at least misplaced. Time will tell.

New Year 2022: Today flows into tomorrow, today flows into yesterday

Lady Shizuka

Yoshitsune was a famous warrior who lived in medieval Japan. Because of the situation of the country at that time, he was sent to the northern provinces, where he was killed. Before he left he bade farewell to his wife [Lady Shizuka], and soon after she wrote in a poem, “Just as you unreel the thread from a spool, I want the past to become present.” When she said this, actually she made past time present. In her mind the past became alive and was the present. So as Dogen said, “Time goes from present to past.” This is not true in our logical mind, but it is in the actual experience of making past time present. There we have poetry, and there we have human life.

Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Do not think that time merely flies away. Do not see flying away as the only function of time. If time merely flies away, you would be separated from time. The reason you do not clearly understand the time being is that you think of time only as passing.

In essence, all things in the entire world are linked with one another as moments. Because all moments are the time being, they are your time being.

The time being has a characteristic of flowing. So-called today flows into tomorrow, today flows into yesterday, yesterday flows into today. And today flows into today, tomorrow flows into tomorrow.

Dogen, Shobo Genzo/Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, Uji/The Time Being

Now it’s children: Is this the polio moment for covid?

The story of polio in America has been relevant since the covid pandemic began.

Polio is a highly communicable virus that can cause irreparable damage to the central nervous system. Most famously in American history, it was the disease that handicapped President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a handicap that was hidden from the public but that was an open secret among all who knew him.

Polio had been managed into the twentieth century. But by the 1950s America was suffering with a polio epidemic—an epidemic that predominately affected children, leaving them with lifelong weakness in their limbs, or in iron lungs to help them breathe.

Frantic projects to find a vaccine eventually yielded results. Two types were developed: the dead-virus vaccine Salk and the live-virus vaccine Sabin. Unfortunately, unlike the strict review and manufacturing process we have today, vaccine review then was not stringent enough to catch one harmful bad batch of the live-virus vaccine. Still, the vaccines were overwhelmingly safe and effective.

More than that, parents who had been scared every single day that their children would get polio were beyond relieved. They rushed for vaccinations, which then became a regular part of required public health. Today, polio has been eradicated. Still, the immediate and long-term suffering it caused can’t be erased.

Recent reports are that covid hospitalizations among children are increasing in frightening numbers (one New York children’s hospital reports a 500% increase in one week). So it is time to ask those who have chosen to forego behaviors to reduce the spread of covid: If not for yourself, or your neighbors, or strangers in your community, what about children—your children, their children? Seventy years ago, parents stood in long lines to wait for a vaccine shot. What are you waiting for?

PBS American Experience produced the episode The Polio Crusade.

The first part:

The complete episode.

Don’t Look Up: When we overlook poor entertainment quality for ideology we are in trouble

Don’t Look Up is now the #1 movie on Netflix. It is the work of Adam McKay, a good comedy writer and director, creator of such gems as Anchorman (2004), a gently absurd satire of 1970s TV news that is loaded with laughs.

Don’t Look Up is not loaded with laughs, according to about half of its reviewers. To be more precise, reviews fall into three categories:

1. Sorry, but this is an unsuccessful attempt to deal with big issues. It is supposed to be a satire, but the laughs are few. A wasted opportunity.

2. This is a worthy attempt, and the results are mixed but mostly on point. Thank you.

3. Brilliant. The Academy award buzz is deserved.

What are the big issues that the movie employs so many big stars to satirize? Rejection of science (climate change, covid), social media, useless news, stupid political leaders, visionary self-serving billionaires, citizen lemmings, all in the context of the world literally ending.

Every single one of those issues deserves astute attention and analysis. You can do it seriously and didactically, and there is plenty of that. Or you can take the route of satire, which writers and filmmakers have long done. If, for example, you haven’t ever seen Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, go ahead, finish the last few paragraphs here, and watch it.

Reviewers in all categories, even the most negative, sympathize with McKay’s anger about these targets. Good intentions, even in art, should be applauded. But when we allow good intentions to distort our view of outcomes, we are hampering our ability to achieve our goals. Whether it is artists or leaders, sympathy with ideology is not nearly enough.

Every single problem McKay takes on in the movie deserves deep attention. With all due appreciation for his talents, maybe someone else will come along with a better big picture satire (or maybe nobody can or should even try to take on all of these in one film). That said, it is near certain that he will be rewarded with many award nominations and probably some wins. But if viewers, critics and awards voters don’t quite understand the cliché that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”, they should consider it.

Coyote Christmas (Faith)

For K

heard but unseen
arias in the dark
what do they mean
songs in the canyon
loneliness love longing
surely something there
in the night
unseen but heard

© 2021 Bob Schwartz

What Christmas means to you (and me)

There are infinite stories about someone who has lost the “meaning” of Christmas, then through a series of plot points, finds the “meaning” of Christmas, which is defined in the story. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is the most famous, and there are many more (watch Hallmark Christmas movies for a sampling).

This glosses over the fact that there are multiple meanings of Christmas for different people. For the faithful, it is in the first place (but not only) the birth day of the foretold Messiah. It is also a time to emphasize peace, good will, emergence from the darkest of winter to a brighter season. It is a time for giving (and receiving), which has helped transform it into a holiday of commercial opportunity. These are just some of the meanings.

For those without faith in the conventionally detailed Christmas story (but who may still find Jesus a worthy teacher), there is still much positive meaning to be mined. The questions for anyone is what Christmas means to you, if anything, and what it might mean.

For me, those things mentioned above—peace, good will, more light—are perfect. I can’t speak for anyone else, but there are plenty of days that are soiled and spoiled by conflict, ill will and shade. Having at least one day a year, especially during such challenging years, is the least we can aspire to.

Have a joyful Christmas!

Joan Didion Dead at 87

Writer Joan Didion has died at the age of 87. There are going to be so many literary and laudatory obituaries that I am not going to try. The New York Times obituary is just one of dozens.

Joan Didion wrote non-fiction and fiction. I am partial to her essays, where she demonstrated that she was one of the greatest English language prose voices. I have read and reread her collections, the best of which is The White Album (1979) .

The White Album begins with a long multi-part essay entitled The White Album. The whole collection is her vision of the Sixties, as a writer, person, and L.A. resident, but the opening essay is the key. It starts with a perfect paragraph about storytelling, then describes her disjointed life, wanders through the Doors, Eldridge Cleaver, and more, visits the Manson murders, and closes with her view of writing itself.

The essay begins:

We tell ourselves stories in order to live. The princess is caged in the consulate. The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea. The naked woman on the ledge outside the window on the sixteenth floor is a victim of accidie, or the naked woman is an exhibitionist, and it would be “interesting” to know which. We tell ourselves that it makes some difference whether the naked woman is about to commit a mortal sin or is about to register a political protest or is about to be, the Aristophanic view, snatched back to the human condition by the fireman in priest’s clothing just visible in the window behind her, the one smiling at the telephoto lens. We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.

and ends:

I have known, since then, very little about the movements of the people who seemed to me emblematic of those years. I know of course that Eldridge Cleaver went to Algeria and came home an entrepreneur. I know that Jim Morrison died in Paris. I know that Linda Kasabian fled in search of the pastoral to New Hampshire, where I once visited her; she also visited me in New York, and we took our children on the Staten Island Ferry to see the Statue of Liberty. I also know that in 1975 Paul Ferguson, while serving a life sentence for the murder of Ramon Novarro, won first prize in a PEN fiction contest and announced plans to “continue my writing.” Writing had helped him, he said, to “reflect on experience and see what it means.” Quite often I reflect on the big house in Hollywood, on “Midnight Confessions” and on Ramon Novarro and on the fact that Roman Polanski and I are godparents to the same child, but writing has not yet helped me to see what it means.

Please read what’s in between.