Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The Power of the Imagination to transform reality: James Mcbride's novel Deacon King Kong is a tour de force hinting at rectification of a culture spinning out of control

As I prepare to publish this posting, the newswires are flashing with news that both the President and First Lady have tested positive for the Corona Virus and are quarantined and the president has been admitted to Walter Reed Hospital.

This is an alarming 'bit' of news in itself as the country is ready to enter the last month before a national election.

from dreamtime.com

What is at the heart of this article is the power of the imagination.

Just how powerful is the imagination in shaping our reality?

How far can the imagination go, with its power to shape our beliefs and understanding, before it collides head on--with potential mortal consequences?

 We know that for the past 6 months, our Potus and First Lady have acted as if the pandemic did not exist as a threat to life--at least as regards themselves.

Whether they believed that the pandemic was a serious global threat or not, they acted as if they were somehow immune. They ignored the best medical experts and defiantly did not wear facemasks.

Were they successful in reimagining reality? Has their overt defiance of  global medical wisdom made a difference in their supposed immunity to the virus?

This issue lies at the heart of the next of my postings as I explore how a number of brilliant writers who have reimagined the harsh, often brutal circumstances mushrooming  beyond their control.

Can great writing somehow transcend and diminish the harsh decree of the pandemic which claims thousands of American lives daily?

My answer is an 'affirmative' yes and I will demonstrate in the next few posts.

Deacon King Kong by James Mcbride is an excellent illustration.

This monumental writing is a saga that runs only 370 pages! But in its gutsy, visceral, at times stream of consciousness prose, it will hold you breathless in a roller coaster ride from start to finish.

The time is 1969, The setting is a New York City housing authority run ' project' eponymously called the "Cause" located in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn--an area filled with loading docks immortalized by Marlon Brando in "On the Waterfront."

It is a time when heavy drugs, heroine and crack are in heavy use and the distribution controlled by competing drug lords

It is a time of hope and change symbolized by the Mayor John Lindsay's liberal republican administration filled with young ivy league educated idealistic public servants filled with aspirations to clean up the  lives of the trodden masses, the wretched refuse to make the city a more humane habitat for all its denizens.

Liberty Enlightening the World Poster
A Central Character/Metaphor in the novel

Against the squalid lives of the outlying forgotten souls is the oft mentioned recurring symbol of hope-the Statue of Liberty- in full view from this south Brooklyn community.

The central character-- Deacon King Kong-- is a moniker for a church centered drunkard whose life centers around a constant imbibing of home grown whisky called king kong, At the same time he is dealing with a number of other convergent obsessions: the loss of his deceased wife Hettie with whose apparition he is in constant dialogue, obsessed with finding the Church Christmas Club money he believes she hid; obsessed with his role as 'failed' mentor to a promising church-raised 19 year old kid, aptly named Deems Clemens. (ala Roger)

This kid has a great pitching arm with a probable major league career in the wings. Sadly, he drops baseball to become the local lucrative distributor, controlling the sale of heroine to hapless, clueless denizens of the "Cause" projects.

The climax occurs when an inebriated Deacon quietly approaches Deems at the flagpole located in the center of the communal courtyard at high noon as Deems is presiding over the daily distribution of drugs; Deacon then pulls out a revolver with intent to kill his erstwhile baseball star. Fortunately the intended victim turns his head at the last moment and so Deacon blows off his ear.

Questions loom big: does Deems exact revenge upon his mentor Deacon King Kong? And does Deems, now convalescing in the hospital lose his position to another drug lord eager to control such a lucrative enterprise? Finally, what becomes of the Deacon at the end of the novel? Immortalized or dehumanized?

And other questions are writ large: James Mcbride portrays many cultures: black, Irish, Italian and Jewish with with long standing turf wars by drug lords fighting over the control and distribution of heroine to dozens of neighborhoods. Do you agree with me that the novel at various times hints at the rectification and humanization of the 'dark side' of noble creative cultures -with deep roots in the ante-bellum south, Ireland, Italy and Eastern Europe?

At the center of the novel is the redeeming burgeoning love that sprouts between an Italian drug lord and a legitimate owner of a successful bagel business.

This novel is sure to grab you from start to finish.

Finally, does Mcbride portray some hope amidst this corrupted culture?

For these and other questions, I will not share answers with you until you have devoured and have had a chance to digest this great read--as I will continue to do for a long time. 

We get a hint of Deems' 'big game ' future as he lays in bed convalescing from his wound:

"...Deems lay sideways, his bandaged ear toward the ceiling, closed his eyes, and slept the sleep of a troubled boy who, over the course of an hour, had suddenly become what he'd always wanted to be: not a boy from one of New York City's worst housing projects, an unhappy boy who had no dream, no house, no direction, no safety, no aspiration, no house keys, no backyard, no Jesus, no marching band practice, not a mother who listened to him, no father who knew him, no cousin who showed him right from wrong. He was no longer a boy who could throw a baseball seventy-eight miles an hour at age thirteen because back then it was the one thing in his sorry life he could control. All that was past. He was a man with a plan now,  and he had to make a big play, no matter what. That was the game."

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

A Day of Mob Rule in our Citadel of Democracry: Recall these words of President John Adams 200 Years ago

The following quote is from President John Adams penned in early 1801 as he returned to Massachusetts from the inauguration ceremony in Washington, D.C.
      He had just participated in the first orderly transfer of power in a democracy in the civilized western world. His successor, Thomas Jefferson, was a political rival; however, their differences  in political beliefs did not prevent the two great leaders from becoming the best of friends exchanging many letters and even dying on the same day in 1826, July 4th. 

John Adams (1735-1826), Second President of the U.S.
Painting by Gilbert Stuart 

"We are a government of laws and not of men. We will betray this principle if we trade a government of laws for a government of men or, even worse, a single man or an impressionable and dangerous mob intent on violent sedition and insurrection against our beloved democratic republic." 

Quoted by Rep. Jamie Raskin during a speech delivered on the House floor on Wednesday January 6th: a day of violence, shame and infamy in the capitol building: 

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Standing in Awe: The Power of Great Literature to Inform, Transform and Rectify (Human Behavior and Effect Social Changes)

I am still in a state of awe over a series events that occurred over a two day period.

Here's what happened.  

I. Wednesday's Literary Discussion 

As part of a  Literature at Lunch class that I lead with Rabbi Moshe/Mitchell Kurtz at Congregation Agudath Sholom, we just discussed what is perhaps the most anthologized native American short story, "The Man to Send Rainclouds." It is written by Leslie Marmon Silko, pictured above, who is a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe of New Mexico. 

Artistically compressed tightly in its two and a half pages are many themes and symbols. In the interests of keeping my essay brief here are some are in a nutshell. 

First, the historical background of the canvas upon she paints her masterpiece namely white European man's burden to civilize the natives--seen as savages--which involved coerced conversion to Catholicism, forced agricultural labor on missions, torture and killing of resisters. 

A major character of the story is LAND-- which, in accordance with native American traditions, is held in stewardship for the entire community. Also, land is needed, of course, to provide man with provender for sustenance. And in order to insure a steady supply of crops, a steady supply of rain is essential. And,  humans, who have passed on, are an essential part of the ritual to guarantee rain. 

To illustrate, when grandfather Teophilo dies suddenly while tending his flock of sheep, his grandchildren quickly prepare the body for a simple interment, wrapping him in a red blanket, attaching a feather to his long strand of white hair, painting  his face with symbolic colors and sprinkling  him with corn and pollen. 

These rituals insure his soul a swift protected journey to reunite with the Great Spirit while his body is infused with the sanctity acting as an agent to guarantee continued and future fertility of the soil. 

His passage begins  with a proper burial of the body, enriching the earth with nutrients as the body decomposes; and then eventually the soul is a type of offering  to the Great Spirit given to help ensure abundant rainfall.

Ernest Hemingway 
from Wikipedia

The dialog in this masterpiece is sparse, threadbare, clipped and understated ala Hemingway. The very first dialog is when the two grandchildren find grandpa hunched over in the arroyo, recently deceased;
then they perform the rites described above and one of the boys declares "Send us rain clouds, grandfather."

And...….The story ends after the funeral with Leon surmising "...now the old man could send them big thunderclouds for sure."

II. Thursday's Announcement: RADICAL AMAZEMENT

Deb Haaland, currently congresswoman from 
the Laguna Puebla tribe in New Mexico
photo from the Navajo-Hopi Observer 

The very next day after our discussion, it was announced by the White House that President Biden's choice for Secretary of the Interior would be Deb Haaland, like Leslie Marmon Silko, a native American  citizen of the Laugna Pueblo Tribe of New Mexico and 35th generation, to boot. 

Laguna Pueblo, Native American reservation near
Albuquerque, New Mexico, home to Deb Haaland 
and Leslie Marmon Silko. Photo from dream.com

Why am I in radical amazement?

The shoe-in appointee for the position of Secretary of the Interior was thought to be Tom Udall, senator from New Mexico whose father Stewart Udall served as Secretary of the Interior under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson from 1961-1969. 

What's more Tom, like his deceased dad, is a staunch supporter of wilderness conservation. 

So, the announcement that congresswoman Haaland, a member of the very same Laguna Pueblo tribe as that of our author Leslie Marmon Silko, is the first native American ever to be nominated to a cabinet post, came as a  pleasant surprise.

 I am tempted against my better judgment to attribute this totally unexpected event in some small part to my teaching this work of fiction which so urgently calls for our recognition of  and making rectification to an ethnic minority--once clearly a majority on the North American continent--a group that has suffered horrifically to the point of  near extinction over the past 500 years. 

Consider these numbers: Historians put the native American population in North America in the 1500's at about 3 to 7 million. By 1800, this number shrank to about 300,000 and by the late 19th century the figure stood at about 260,000. 

That is a 90% drop. 

The decimation of this indigenous race was a result of disease brought to the Americas by settlers from European countries, by appropriation of ancestral lands,  forced conversion and internment on Spanish missions often accompanied by torture and wanton slaughter and by wars fought against military foes with superior weapons. 

Today the Native American population stands at about 2.9 million with over 574 recognized tribes. Indian land areas in the U.S. are administered as federal land areas. There are 326 reservations; the Navajo nation is the largest one comprising over 17 million acres covering southeastern Utah, northeastern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico. 

It is my hope that Deb Haaland's nomination be quickly approved and that she be the "woman to bring rectification" to centuries of abuse. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Thanksgiving is an Oasis in Time: Finding Stillness, Calm and Beauty....


Happy Thanksgiving to all: 

Finally a brief respite from the tumultuous unpredictable  times that besiege us and have been belittling and harassing us for such a long time. 

This holiday gives us, as a nation, composed of so many solid caring  families, an opportunity to acknowledge and dwell upon all that we must be thankful for: our family, our spiritual traditions, our solid institutions of learning, our museums, our inventors, our high speed internet connections, and the beauty of nature...

So with a modicum of peace and a pause from the seeming chaos around us, where 'our centers do not seem to hold' (to paraphrase W.B. Yeats' poem, The Second Coming),  I sat down and just let my weary mind wander..... and penned these short haiku- influenced lines of verse: 

Irakli  Kvaratshkhelia , Photographer

A solitary cry....I cannot breathe 

I hear only the shimmering silence 

of petals floating at a calm sea. 

In memory of: 

Mom: a poetess of the divine who passed on the 2nd day of Kislev
Dad: healer of man who left us on the 10th day of Kislev
Brother, Dr. Gabe: who went to a better world on the 15th of Kislev, today's Hebrew date. 

May their memories and accomplishments serve as a blessing and inspiration to all those who aspire to creating a better world not only for us, but, above all, for our children. 

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Temps reach over 117 degrees in Phoenix, Fires rage across CA, Ore. and Wash. and Denver goes from 99 degrees to snowfall in 24 hours

 Its easy to get caught up in the relentless waves of sad news 'sweeping' (clean) our country.

One plague after another. 

As if the Covid pandemic is not enough---claiming over 1,000 American lives daily....

In the summer of 2018, the Camp Fire leveled the town of Paradise, CA destroying some 14,000 residences. 

This summer saw the LNU Lightning complex (yes, multiple strikes of lightening)  igniting  many fires affecting residents in Napa County, Solano County, Lake County, Yolo County and Sonoma County. 

                                              Photo from MSNBC news, Sept. 10, 2010

And just yesterday, fires are burning in many areas of Oregon and Washington states; an area size of New Jersey is now aflame in all three Pacific coast states.  

As the West is burning, cities are still reeling from the shocking deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Daniel Prude. 

Widespread flooding and storm damage has occurred in the Lake Charles, Louisiana area as a result of Hurricane Laura.

And its aftermath has caused severe storm damage here in New England (thousands without power for over a week and communities littered with downed trees on almost every street). 

And here in Connecticut a number of freak tornadoes have wreaked havoc in the the Westport area and elsewhere. 

And the beat goes on ....the beat goes on.

Is there cause for pessimism?

No doubt!

But there is cause for optimism! Continue reading my articles in the weeks to come.

Yes, the beat need not go on. 

And I will show you how. 

So stay tuned. 

Thursday, April 30, 2020

National Poetry Month: Celebrating Poetry in Motion at Transit Museum at Grand Central

Hundreds of short poems have been displayed on  train stations, subway cars and buses for over 25 years thanks to a collaboration between the Poetry Society of American and the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

This year I highlight the poetry of native american poet Sherman Alexie with this verse from Crazy Horse Speaks:

I wear the color of my skin
like a brown paper bag
wrapped around a bottle.
Sleeping between
the pages of dictionaries
your language cuts
tears holes in my tongue
until I do not have strength
to use the word "love."
What could it mean
in this city where everyone is

Sherman Alexie was born in Spokane, Washington and is a poet, novelist and filmmaker and his works reflect his experience as a native American whose genealogy includes a number of different tribes.  

Sherman Alexie from npr.com
For NPR broadcast interview, click here 

To view my prior articles celebrating the power of poetry click here. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

A Must Read Letter from a Guilford Connecticut resident on Adjusting to Virus Social Distancing

This blogger is indebted to the New York Times for publishing the following  letter written to the Editor of New York Times and published on Thursday, March 19, 2020.

We can optimize our social distancing time by writing
memoirs, collecting family photos and reaching out
to our friends and neighbors and display gratitude and compassion,
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images 

 To the Editor:

 Come on, boomers! We grew up in the 1950s, hid under desks during air raid drills, suffered through the Vietnam War. Mostly we have enjoyed safety and prosperity. Now we are the elders. (Just look at the presidential candidates!) It’s our time to lead by example.

 Don’t grab all of the toilet paper on the shelves. (Store owners, set limits, two per customer.) Don’t veg out in front of the bad news being recycled on TV, whether Fox or MSNBC. Read your morning New York Times, do the crossword puzzle and then move on.

 Are you self-isolating? These are good times to be alone and quiet, go inward, seek meaning from the paths our lives have taken, write memoirs, gather family photographs. Hunkering down does not mean hiding. Send out positive messages. Wave and smile from the front porch. Grow flowers. Bake bread and cookies for the neighbors who shop for you. Wouldn’t we rather burn out than rust out?

Find a way to make a positive difference in your community. Rock on!

 Susan Coley Leonard
 Guilford, Conn.