Talkin’ Middle-America Unemployment Pandemic Blues

Some of you might know I’ve been unemployed since June 2020. I like earning income, having benefits, and keeping my brain occupied while producing something. But this layoff has had unintended benefits. It effectively obliterated certain duties and certain office and cubicle dwellers that were beginning to feel like a millstone around my neck. Plus, the time off has allowed me to stretch out.

Anyway, while I hope to be shackled to the 9 to 5 a few more years before limping into the sunset, I want to share what I think might be a typical unemployed weekday in the life of a 60-something, college-educated, middle-class American male in the era of the pandemic.  Perhaps my mundane ritual can provide some humor or consolation for others in a similar state.  In this global village, we need to stick together. So here’s my routine…with a shout-out to my retired blogging chum Neil at Yeah, Another Blogger for his Seinfeld-styled inspiration.

Greenpete’s Day:

8:00 – 8:30: roll out of bed, shower, brush hair, remove hair clumps from brush, shave, floss

8:30 – 9:00: fix Seattle’s Best coffee (YES!), eat Cheerios, watch a Leave it to Beaver rerun

9:00 – 12:00: read/delete emails, visit social media sites and Amazon (sometimes).  Search for work, though this activity is dwindling. Maybe write, like what I’m doing now

12:00 – 1:00: eat lunch, usually peanut butter sandwich with potato chips, or leftovers

1:00 – 4:30: VARIES WIDELY. Maybe read book. Maybe play with visiting granddaughters. Maybe revisit social media or job hunt. Maybe write. Maybe practice guitar. In warmer weather, yardwork. Eat a banana or Gala or Fuji apple

4:30 – 5:00: change into running clothes and do two-mile run in neighborhood (YES!)

5:00 – 5:30: take dogs on walk around neighborhood while scooping poop and chatting socially distantly with neighbors

5:30 – 6:00: shower and stretch, concentrating heavily on back stretches

6:00 – 7:00: eat appetizers (almonds or cheese/crackers), drink Yuengling beer (sometimes), watch reruns of The Rifleman starring Chuck Conners

7:00 – 8:00: swallow senior multi-vitamin and eye meds, eat large bowl of leaf spinach, eat dinner (often black bean soup, usually whatever my wife has fixed). Watch PBS Newshour featuring my girlfriend Judy Woodruff, and often yell at the interviewee

 8:00 – 10:30: read book or watch either PBS or old movie (“old” being 1940s-70s). In winter, watch/ogle alpine skier Lara Gut-Behrami or biathlete Dorothea Wierer. Eat small piece of dark chocolate

10:30 – 11:00: drink MiraLAX, head upstairs, swallow Echinacea pill (great for warding off colds, possible COVID-19 preventative), brush teeth, crawl under covers

11:00 – 8:00 or 8:30: sleep, wake up, pee and rehydrate with diluted orange juice, sleep, wake up, pee and drink again, sleep, perchance to dream. (Had one of my best a few nights ago. She was a redhead.)

8:00 – 8:30: begin ritual anew.  NOTE: this ritual changes significantly on weekends. For one thing, more beer is consumed

In addition to Neil, I thank my wife for accompanying me in some of the above endeavors, and for her understanding regarding women news anchors, skiers, and overnight redheads.  Without her, I don’t know where I’d be. 

And, please, if anyone has suggestions for improving my above ritual, or would like to share their own routine, add a comment! As humorist Red Green used to say, “Remember, I’m pullin’ for ya—we’re all in this together.”

The State of Donald Trump – Repost

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NOTE: I originally published this essay in June 2016. This was before the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, and even before both parties’ national conventions. I’m republishing now, not so much as an “I told you so,” but more because it crystallizes the oft-used quote, “In a democracy you get the government you deserve.”

Or as Winston Churchill said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

Ours is a democracy, albeit shaky, so maybe we deserved the last four years, as well as the chilling and uncertain state of our future. Maybe we needed a “reality check”?

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

***

The other night a voice came to me, and it turned out it was the late, great, ‘60s protest singer, Phil Ochs. He said “Pete, wake up, this is Ochs here. Over.”

I said “You’re putting me on, of course, God.”

He then sang a few verses about the Vietnam War, and I realized it actually was Phil Ochs.

“I need you to do me a big favor,” he said.

I told him I was a huge admirer, have heard all his music, and that I’d do anything he asked. He told me he was concerned about the upcoming presidential election, and he wanted me to update his 1965 anthem “Here’s to the State of Mississippi” (which he himself later revised during the Nixon years).

Of course, I was flattered. But I explained that I was a terrible singer, and not much better as a guitarist.

“I know, I know. But you’re a boy in Ohio who likes old movies, like me, and you have a blog. I want you to use the framework of my song, but instead of Mississippi or Nixon, I want you to substitute Donald Trump. I’m really worried he might get elected.”

I told him it was impossible someone like Trump could be elected in America. I told him that, ever since I was a kid, the news media and politicians had assured me “The American people are smarter than that.” (Whatever “that” might be).

He laughed. “You don’t believe that line, do you? Ha ha, Pete, you’re so funny. Listen, Americans may know the maximum characters in a Tweet. But do they know the number of justices on the U.S. Supreme Court?”

“Uh, nine, right?” I asked.

“Well, normally. Only eight right now, since Republican senators refuse to hold hearings on Merrick Garland,” he said with a tone of disgust. “Which proves my point. Where’s the outrage??”

I remembered that, despite a treasure chest of brilliant songs, Ochs was denied even one hit.

“Yeah, I think the outrage might be justified, Phil.”

“I want you to do this thing for me, Pete. And after this new lyric has been seen by your readers – all six of them – I’m hoping one of them will sing it, put it on YouTube, and it will then go viral and prevent a national catastrophe.”

I told him I’d do my best, then asked him if he thought my puny efforts would make a difference. But he said he had to go, and muttered something about “Bobby Dylan” and “squandering his talent.”

So here it is. Please, if anyone can sing, and can put this thing on YouTube so it will go viral and prevent a national catastrophe, Phil and I will be very grateful.

fascist killing machine

Here’s to the State of Mr. Trump (sung to the tune of “Here’s to the State of Mississippi,” by Phil Ochs)

Here’s to the state of Mr. Trump
For behind the flashy suit there’s a tyrant with no heart
An egotist, a con man bent on tearing us apart
A bully spreading poison in a country that he’s bought
And the GOP supports him ‘cause he’s really all they’ve got
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the party of Mr. Trump
Republican officials have discovered it’s too late
So now he’s not that bad, and he’ll be their party’s face
Though he’s a sexist and a bigot, he’ll make their country great
The party of wealth and power has endorsed a man of hate
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
GOP, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the rallies of Mr. Trump
If you dare to criticize him you’ll be shown the door real fast
And everything is “beautiful,” at least as long as winning lasts
And he’s fawned on by reporters ‘cause he brings them lots of cash
His supporters stretch their arms like the Germans from our past
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the foes of Mr. Trump
The ones who disagree will get labeled with a name
And anyone unlike him is where he’ll lay the blame
The politics of slander are used for his own gain
Derogatory insults are how he plays his game
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the victims of Mr. Trump
It’s the many he’s offended, it could be you or me
Immigrants and disabled who are seeking dignity
P.O.W.s and women, our purple mountains majesty
Forget about our green fields, he’ll strip and drill us clean
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the money of Mr. Trump
His tax return’s a mystery, it’s locked behind closed doors
His accountants smile and plot on how to move his cash offshore
Four billion that he’s bankrolled and you’re a “moron” if you’re poor
Now he’s bought the next election and the voters must endure
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the priorities of Mr. Trump
Corporations with his name are weighted down with lies
He claims he’s for the people but he’s wearing a disguise
Instead of tackling issues he talks about hand size
When he starts discussing women you’d better shield your ears and eyes
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

And here’s to the legacy of Mr. Trump
A country now a punch line, an embarrassment to the globe
Hypocrisy and ugliness, each day a newer low
He’s used our flag to wipe his rear, the Constitution to blow his nose
If Pete and Woody and Phil were here they’d tell Trump where to go
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mr. Trump, find yourself another country to be part of.

***

A free society without a free press is like a table with no legs. Yet Mr. Trump has already banned, from his events, a number of major media outlets that he perceives as being critical of him. This is unprecedented for a presidential candidate, and it’s not a good sign.

He may never visit this humble corner of the blogosphere. But I’d like Mr. Trump to know one thing:

“When I’ve got something to say, sir, I’m gonna say it now.”

(Many thanks to Sonny Ochs).

source of our liberty

“Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays”?

That is the question.  Whether ‘tis nobler…

Prince Hamlet’s thinking leaned more existential than a choice between appropriate verbiage for a non-secular holiday salutation in the 21st century. Still, it’s a question we modern-day philistines are faced with. And there’s an element of nobility and gallantry behind deciding how to answer the question posed in my essay header.

I’ll get to the quick: while I’m not anal about it, I prefer “Happy Holidays.” You conservatives might say it’s because I’m a leftist liberal.  There’s a grain of truth to that (although I’m not as leftist as some of you might think).  I would say a more appropriate reason is that I often employ the same brain machinations in non-political as political ways. Hey, I am what I am.

When I was a kid I threw around “Merry Christmas” all the time (or in print, the lazier “Merry Xmas”).  I didn’t know anything about religion.  Hell, I barely knew how babies were made.

I’m older and somewhat wiser now.  I now realize that Christmas is a commercial religious celebration (or at least it started out religious), but that a lot of my fellow Earthlings actually are not Christians.  Eureka!  We’ve got Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, paganists, agnostics, and atheists galore here in Uncle Sam land.  (Maybe not in North Dakota…but you know what I mean.)  Lots of smaller cults, too.

I’ll still say “Merry Christmas” in return if I’m greeted that way, because I know the person greeting me is okay with it.  But if I’m doing the initial greeting, and I’m ignorant of the religious or non-religious affiliation of the person, I always say “Happy Holidays.”  Like Mutual of Omaha, it’s an all-encompassing insurance policy.  It covers New Year’s Day, Hanukkah, and I think it usually satisfies atheists and garden-variety, Christian-tinged agnostics like me.

(I shouldn’t forget Kwanzaa, a black cultural celebration occurring just after Christmas.  Kwanzaa’s popularity has evidently declined since its peak in the 1990s, to the undoubted dismay of Hallmark.)

***

So to those fist-pounding militants who want to “Put Christ back in Christmas,” like the guy around the corner with all the crazy yard signs, I say “knock yourselves out.”  Just don’t foist it on me.  Nothing against Christ—who, by the way, preached humility and tolerance—but I’ll celebrate Christmas in my own way, thank you.

It’s all about politeness.  Or gallantry and nobility. You know, “’Tis nobler.”  Unfortunately, and as we’ve seen with people who are adamant about their “individual rights” and defying “government intrusion” by refusing to wear facemasks in public—masks intended to protect themselves and others—politeness is in absentia in certain dark corners of the country right now.

But in the Christmas spirit, I’ll offer a “Happy Holidays” to even these people.  And throw in a “Be Safe” for good measure.

“The Lighthouse” (2019)

I’d intended to piggyback my last essay with reasons why American democracy is on the skids. But after Joe Biden’s narrow victory, I feel we’ve nudged just a bit closer to sanity, despite the yawning political, cultural, and racial divide that will continue to exist. We’ll see more attempts to subvert the democratic process while King of the Birthers, as everyone anticipated, gathers his Morlocks together to contest the results of perhaps the cleanest election in history. But to say anything more, right now, would be bad form.  

Instead, I’ll review a movie I recently watched. Movies can offer great escapism during these surreal times. They’re almost as effective as getting drunk, and there’s no hangover.

Those who know me know I prefer older things: older movies, music, novels, gas pump kiosks, et cetera. So it’s unusual for me to watch a recent film, like, one made in the last thirty years. The dear departed Sean Connery summed it up: those making Hollywood movies today are, quite frankly, “idiots.”

But while scrolling through Roku or one of those other bullshit TV toys, I saw the title, promo pic, and sea imagery for The Lighthouse and said “Cor blimey, greenpete, live dangerously!” I also admire Willem Dafoe’s acting. I saw him in Mississippi Burning, Platoon, and Born on the Fourth of July and, although these flicks have some flaws, I consider Dafoe a highlight. He’s a little weird, like Christopher Walken with human blood, so he’s always fun to watch.

With The Lighthouse, I looked forward to getting mentally entangled in a complex psychological drama. I didn’t expect to get stuck in simplistic psychological horror.

Here’s the “story”: two New Englanders from the 19th century (I think) convene at an island lighthouse for a four-week shift duty. Dafoe plays a crusty, veteran sea salt. Robert Pattinson is a younger, green-around-the-gills landlubber. Despite some minor cultural squabbles at the start, they seem to be handling the eerie isolation and crappy weather. Then, Salty Dog’s behavior takes on a sadistic turn, and Greenhorn begins hallucinating.

You may be thinking The Shining transferred to the seacoast. I thought so, too. But The Shining benefited from the cinematic genius of Stanley Kubrick. This film is actually closer in spirit to the one-note Shutter Island, but without a gimmick ending. While the B&W cinematography deserved its Oscar nomination, that’s the only good thing here, other than Dafoe’s entertaining Ahab shtick. There’s no backstory…or story proper. The whole film is a celebration of depravity. Here are some lowlights:

  • Greenhorn fucks a mermaid. (Or is he hallucinating?) And this is a 21st-century-styled mermaid, so she’s actually just a topless, thick-lipped runway model with a tailfin costume
  • Greenhorn violently masturbates to a toy figurine of his favorite mermaid
  • Greenhorn angrily flails a seagull against a wall for five minutes until the bird looks like a bloody rag. (Seriously, someone needs to contact PETA.)
  • Salty Dog farts loudly
  • While drunk, Salty Dog and Greenhorn dance cheek-to-cheek and nearly have homosexual sex. This scene is almost as nauseating as the seagull scene
  • Greenhorn makes Salty Dog bark and crawl on all fours with a rope leash around his neck
  • Greenhorn splits Salty Dog’s head in two with an axe. SPOILER ALERT (oops, sorry, too late).

I’m beyond my self-imposed space limit, so I’ll close. If you want to see how a skilled filmmaker handles gradual descents into madness, watch Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965). Don’t bother with this bilge water, which is, like our Demagogue-in-Chief, truly repulsive. Sean Connery was right.

Well, I’m headed back to TCM. And to watch our petulant child-president do what he does so well.

Election 2020?

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First…hello to readers of years past. As y’all know, I took a year off from this blog for a pit stop. But now I have fresh wheels, and—for better or worse—I’m back on track. (And greetings to you new visitors.)

I think my pit stop helped in a few ways. I finished the draft of another book, this one a crime fiction potboiler, and a PK magnum opus with the artistic and commercial promise of an Ed Wood film.

I also created a woodland park in our backyard, resumed guitar playing after a long layoff, and became laid off in June due to quote “lack of work” unquote. But the latter is a good thing. I was beginning to hate the work that was so lacking. And I’m now at a life station where the ridiculousness of things is much clearer, and I can better afford to raise the proverbial middle finger at said ridiculousness. 

Also, my granddaughters are a bigger part of my life after having returned to the U.S. from Scotland. And I’ve been reading a lot.  Books. Most recently I read Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. There’s a reason why everyone reading this blog is familiar with the name Hemingway. His is the way to write. And in the spirit of Hemingway, Longitudes Mark II will have shorter essays. Mark I was becoming bloated. Moving forward I hope to express myself using fewer and clearer words. The key word is hope.

But that does not mean I will be softening my views. Au contraire! Things are as shitty if not shittier than they ever were. And I’ll be here to ascertain the dung heap. Which brings me to today’s topic…America’s favorite horse race…our shitty presidential election.

My wife loves the cliché “If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain.” I disagree. Our Bill of Rights has an amendment that gives me the freedom to complain even if I choose not to vote. (What a wonderful thing.) Now, if I’m too lazy or uninformed to vote, then perhaps absence from the voting booth gives me no ethical right to complain. There are many lazy and uninformed non-voters in America today. And also, many idiotic voters. I haven’t yet figured out which is worse.

But abstention from voting because one dislikes the candidates or is disgusted with the electoral process gives him or her every right to complain. I happen to like one of our two presidential candidates. What sickens me is not the candidates (one of them), it’s the corrupted and rigged election process that makes my vote practically meaningless. The year 2020 is a lot different than 1976, when I first voted.

For me, voting in a U.S. election in 2020 is like screaming “Fire!” when the building is already a smoking ash pile. I voted in every election for years, and even campaigned for a couple candidates. But when a free people in a so-called democracy see flames shooting up, and instead of throwing water choose to fling gasoline, it’s time to move on.

I think. I may actually vote again. I haven’t decided. Even though I’m faced with a foreboding ash pile, at least I can still scream, which is better than nothing. But I’ve reached the end of the page, which is a signal that my essay is filling up with more hot air than a Trump tweet.

Anyway…good to be back.

A Day in the Life of a 21st Century American

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Woke up. Fell out of bed.

On the drive to work, the news concerned a 16-year-old Swedish girl with a developmental disorder called Asperger syndrome. She’s pleading with world leaders to try to understand science and act accordingly so our planet and its inhabitants might remain healthy.

One of the most powerful of the world leaders—democratically elected—completely ignored her as he walked past her. He later mocked her on something called “Twitter” that spreads words, frequently opinions, to many people at the drop of a hat.

His example was emulated by others, some of whom are professional “journalists.” One of the “journalists,” a man, suggested the Swedish girl with Asperger syndrome might need a “spanking.”

Another professional “journalist,” who apparently had some insight the rest of the world lacks, explained she was mentally ill and was being manipulated by her parents.

The news described other instances of adults employing insults against the Swedish girl.

Arriving at work, I received an electronic letter known as an “email.” This email requested all employees respond to a meeting invitation. The “meeting” is actually a gathering of all employees for something called “active shooter response training.” The electronic letter explained that this training is a safety measure to protect employees in case a person or persons tries to murder the office employees.

I declined the meeting invitation. I then received a thing called a “Skype,” which is a way of immediately conversing with someone electronically. The Skype message I received was from my department manager, who wanted to see me in his office.

I entered my manager’s office. He lifted his head up from a small communication and entertainment device called an “iPhone.” He began talking about the uncharacteristically hot weather. He then asked me why I declined the meeting invitation for “active shooter response training.” I asked him if I could shut his door, and he said “Please do.”

I explained to him that, while I understand his reasons for conducting this training, I couldn’t in good conscience participate. He asked me why. I told him that I feel that businesses, schools, and churches in America shouldn’t be compelled to play “duck and cover” when our own government refuses to take adequate action. I also told him that these “duck and cover” exercises will merely encourage our government to be even more complacent.

He told me that he respected my views, but didn’t necessarily agree with them. I asked him if that meant he thought that our government was doing enough. He said “No, that’s not it,” then began talking about guns in his basement, and how his wife didn’t like the all the spiders around the vault where he kept his guns.

My department manager didn’t explain why he didn’t agree with my views.

My department manager thanked me, excused me from the “active shooter response training,” and I left his office. I walked past the five American flags that hung outside the cubicles of two of my workmates, and the TRUMP: MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN bumper sticker that is taped atop a cubicle wall near one of the flags.

I rounded the corner and returned to my cubicle, placed headphones on my head to drown out nearby conversations, finished my workday, then began my drive home.

The news on the drive home concerned a Wall Street Journal report about a transcript that revealed the American president requested the president of Ukraine “look into” a former U.S. vice-president and his son. The Ukrainian president evidently declined. The news story added that the American president will possibly be facing the former vice-president in the 2020 election. He may also be facing impeachment, according to a related story.

I noticed that the light changed, and entered my neighborhood. I passed the three homes across the street that had American flags dangling over their front porches. Two of the homes had other flags in addition to their American flags. These other flags were small white flags planted in the corners of the yards, indicating recent toxic chemical application. So I rolled up my car window to block the smell of 2,4-D herbicide, which the science has shown to be carcinogenic.

I pulled into my driveway to hear the final news story on my car radio. It was related to the Swedish girl. But it didn’t concern her pleas to world leaders, or whether or not the world leaders would be responding to her pleas with greater action to combat climate change, which the science has shown to be related to man-made greenhouse gases.

The news story didn’t deal with the girl’s message. It dealt with the girl. Specifically, her Asperger syndrome. With gravitas in his voice, the commentator speculated that her disorder might be related to chemicals in the environment.

I moved the gear lever to PARK, turned the car key, removed my sunglasses, and gazed at the steering wheel a long while.

I didn’t blow my mind out.

A Sort-Of Victory for Colin Kaepernick

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On Friday it was announced that former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and safety Eric Reid settled out of court with the National Football League (NFL) for an undisclosed amount of money.

Kaepernick and Reid had sued the NFL for blackballing them—colluding to keep them unemployed—because in 2016 they kneeled for the U.S. national anthem (“The Star-Spangled Banner”) before NFL football games, to protest police brutality against blacks. Their actions inspired a wave of other protests throughout the league.

Reid eventually signed with the Carolina Panthers, but the more visible Kaepernick is still unemployed in football.

***

On the one hand, the settlement is a capitulation: Kaepernick is settling for a lesser heap of cash than he would get if the case had been ruled in his favor. Also, the NFL avoids an admittance of guilt, and the embarrassment of details (revealing emails, harmful testimonies) that would otherwise go public.

Scott Cunningham_Getty Images

Photo: Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

On the other hand, “Kap” achieved something rare: he was able to administer a black eye to a multi-billion dollar corporation (unlike fellow NFL QB Tom Brady with Deflategate), and he’ll continue to be an icon and standard bearer of social consciousness in sports. Like boxer Muhammed Ali and Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, his stature will only grow in coming years (assuming he steers clear of #MeToo).

Kaepernick has already garnered a multi-year endorsement from Nike, which will only get sweeter. It’s also still possible that a team owner might grow a backbone and sign him to a contract (the Panthers owner, perhaps?).

Beyond this are the damning depositions by league owners Jerry Jones (Dallas Cowboys) and Stephen Ross (Miami Dolphins), who claimed that a certain pubescent, pontificating president’s meddling forced a cowed NFL into making a rule change: players are now required to stand for the anthem. (longitudes: are clenched fists and bowed heads still permitted, or will prohibition of these gestures also now be added to contracts?)

The president, well-known in reality television circles for his enthusiastic embrace of firing employees, not only went on record urging the firing of players who protest during the anthem, but went so far as threatening a change in “tax law” to penalize teams who don’t crack down. Legal experts are now analyzing possible “government infringement upon players’ First Amendment rights.”

While Herr Donald needs little assistance in damning his own legacy, the NFL’s image has only further eroded with its blackballing and government-dictated rule changes.  It comes after a successful $1 billion suit by former players over concussion-related injuries that the league had, for years, denied…monies which are, reputedly, still unpaid.

Kap, longitudes is with you. Happy President’s Day.

Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

Speaking Truth to Power in Tinseltown

Olivia de Havilland portrait

She is 102 years old. Her first screen appearance was in 1935 in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In 1939 she co-starred in one of the most popular films of all time, Gone with the Wind. She was romantically linked with billionaire Howard Hughes, actor Jimmy Stewart, and director John Huston. She has won two Academy Awards for Best Actress, been nominated for three other Oscars, and been awarded or nominated for multiple other acting trophies.

She changed the face of Hollywood in the mid-1940s with the De Havilland Law, which helped terminate the oppressive “studio system” by freeing artists from tyrannical labor contracts.

She was made a Dame by Queen Elizabeth II. She received the highest order of merit in France, the Légion d’Honneur, from Nicolas Sarkozy. She was awarded the National Medal of Arts by George W. Bush. Since 1956, she has lived in the same three-story house in Paris.

Olivia de Havilland is the last surviving actor of 1930s Hollywood, and one of the last of its Golden Age. She’s also the last person one would think would be compelled to file another lawsuit, this one an appeal to the United States Supreme Court. But in these surreal days of infantile tweets by U.S. presidents, when up is down and down is up…anything is possible.

***

In 2017, a mini-series called Feud: Bette and Joan came out on FX Networks. It concerns actress Bette Davis, who was supposedly very feisty, and actress Joan Crawford, supposedly extremely vain (even for Hollywood). The two notoriously clashed during and after the 1962 production of the macabre film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? The recent Feud stars Susan Sarandon as Davis, and Jessica Lange as Crawford.

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Movie still from Baby Jane.  Crawford is on left, Davis is on right.

Olivia de Havilland knew and worked with both Davis and Crawford. Her character, portrayed by Catherine Zeta-Jones, narrates Feud. However, de Havilland was never consulted before or during the making of the series.  

I have not seen Feud, so I can’t comment on its artistic merits. But judging from the subject matter, it sounds not unlike most of the glossy soap-opera trash that Hollywood often promotes as serious “drama” today. (According to de Havilland’s 112-page petition, the mini-series is devoted to “the theme of women actors cat-fighting, using vulgar language, and backstabbing one another.”)

Miss de Havilland’s lawsuit argues that Feud and executive producer Ryan Murphy (previous credit: The People v. O.J. Simpson), take considerable liberties with the truth, to put it politely. But this isn’t unusual in Hollywood (or anywhere else, for that matter). Ever since D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation in 1915, which depicts the Ku Klux Klan as heroic, historical truth has been a malleable commodity in moving pictures. Usually, the factual acrobatics are for artistic and commercial benefit. Sometimes there’s a political or social agenda involved, as with Griffith’s film.

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Davis and de Havilland during the Baby Jane follow-up, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). De Havilland replaced Crawford early on. (Joe Farrington/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images)

But sometimes these artistic liberties cross a threshold and create false impressions that have a deleterious effect on peoples’ character. Such is the claim of Miss de Havilland and her legal team.

Specifically, and related directly to her, de Havilland objects to a scene where she refers to her late sister, actress Joan Fontaine (with whom de Havilland had a cold relationship), as a “bitch.” She also objects to a scene where she makes snide remarks about Frank Sinatra’s alcohol use. The fact that Feud is presented as semi-documentary lends additional weight to de Havilland’s grievance.

Now, these Tinseltown skirmishes may seem petty and inconsequential to most of us. We’ve been raised in an age of constant media diversion, where fact and fantasy often coexist and overlap, and where manners are seemingly…well… “gone with the wind.” We live in a much cruder time. But Olivia de Havilland is from an earlier era. A time when unwritten codes of conduct were adhered to, and not everything—whether fact or fantasy—was splashed onto a screen. Freedom of speech and artistic license are one thing. But libeling someone in the name of art is another.

“Tens of millions of people* viewed “Feud,” and for a new generation, most likely all they know of Petitioner is found in the unauthorized lies and mischaracterization of her life, her work, and her nature as put forward in that series…This false portrayal has damaged Petitioner’s reputation.” (from Petition for a Writ of Certiorari, Oliva de Havilland, DBE, Petitioner v. FX Networks, LLC and Pacific 2.1 Entertainment Group, Inc.).

The Supreme Court appeal was filed in September. It follows an original petition in March 2017, which was struck down by two appeals courts, including the California Supreme Court. In both cases, Murphy and FX Networks successfully used the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to justify their “artistic license” to reputedly stretch the truth and stain the character of both living and dead persons.

Photofest

De Havilland, circa 1940 (Photofest)

In earlier essays, longitudes has touched on issues related to the First Amendment, which protects Americans’ freedom of speech, religion, press, and right to peaceably assemble. Television stars and their supporters have flaunted the Constitution to defend the right to employment after employer termination for vulgar, bigoted remarks (Duck Dynasty vs. U.S. Constitution). Armed political activists have clumsily brandished the Constitution while illegally occupying federal land (This Land is Your Land: Domestic Terrorism in Oregon).

We’ve also seen the U.S. Supreme Court misinterpret the First Amendment in order to protect corporations and enable them to donate unlimited amounts of money to the political candidates they hope will serve their purposes (Citizens United v. FEC).

Longitudes is an enthusiastic fan of Olivia de Havilland. Anyone who has seen either The Heiress or The Snake Pit is aware of her immense talent, not to mention her beauty. But that’s not why this blog supports her in her campaign for truth and decency. It’s because the First Amendment was not intended by the Founders to protect businesses like FX Networks from fictionalizing, in a negative manner, the words and actions of people in the pursuit of commerce, and in the guise of “art.”

Unfortunately, judging from certain recent court decisions where the First Amendment is involved, and the unprecedented clout of U.S. industry today, longitudes doesn’t hold out much hope for Miss de Havilland.

Then again—like a rubber ball bouncing between walls in a closed room—American laws have never been fixed, and their trajectories are purely determined by whomever is doing the bouncing at any given time.

Alice in Wonderland play promo card_1933

Promo card of de Havilland in play Alice in Wonderland, 1933.

* Variety magazine reported that 5.1 million people total watched Feud when first broadcast.

(Header photo: Laura Stevens, Variety)

Serena Williams, Entitlement, and Tennis Hooligans

APTOPIX US Open Tennis

Feeling under the weather today. Had trouble sleeping Saturday night. Just too keyed up. I thought I’d seen it all in sports. Olympic medalists raising clenched fists. Taunting and touchdown celebrations. Steroid use. Temper tantrums.

But Saturday night was a new low. Why? Because this time, deplorable behavior wasn’t restricted to just the athlete. This time, it was boorishness by committee: player, fans, announcers, and association president.

I’m referring to the 2018 women’s tennis final of the U.S. Open in New York City.

As often occurs in professional sports these days, the Big Top was overshadowed by a sideshow. Although 20-year-old Naomi Osaka of Japan won the champions’ trophy by obliterating American Serena Williams in straight sets, 6-2, 6-4, the vast majority of news stories are now focusing on Williams’ massive meltdown. Warned of being coached from the stands, she was then penalized a point for smashing her racket on the court, then penalized a game for verbally abusing the chair umpire for doing what he’s paid to do. The tantrum went on for, oh, maybe ten solid minutes, and continued in slightly milder fashion on the podium and in her news conference.

bitch 2

Queen Serena lectures Ramos

Here are some quotes from Queen Serena:

“I don’t cheat to win, I’d rather lose!” after being warned of coaching from the stands. (Though, after a history of angry outbursts at the U.S. Open, she seems to have difficulty losing.)

(And though cameras distinctly showed her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, gesturing her to move forward, and Mouratoglou himself later admitted he was, indeed, coaching.)

“You stole a point from me and you are a thief!” after chair umpire Carlos Ramos penalized Williams for destroying her racket by slamming it on the court.

“You owe me an apology!” screamed over and over and over.

If this wasn’t bad enough, the raucous, one-sided crowd was behind Williams the whole way, consistently booing Ramos, as well as poor Osaka, whose heroine is (inconceivably) Williams, and who played her heart out.

Then on the podium after the match, USTA President Katrina Adams actually said “Perhaps it is not the finish we were looking for today.” She followed this biased remark with the even more remarkable “This mama (Williams) is a role model and respected by all.” Loud cheers follow, as Osaka—again, the victor and champion—continued to weep, undoubtedly due to the ugly dramatics around her as to her unlikely victory.

Williams refused to praise Osaka for her tennis playing, and instead played to the crowd by pretending to console Osaka…for Osaka’s victory.

sore loser

A sore loser consoles a shaken victor

The jellyfish announcers, Mary Carillo and Lindsay Davenport, seemed stunned by all of it, offering merely token praise to Osaka, and not once criticizing Williams for her antics. I’m just guessing here, but perhaps these two are aware that Williams does commercials for Chase, one of the tournament’s major sponsors? Quid pro quo, anyone?

Today, the majority of U.S. tennis fans are, in a disturbing shadowing of our petulant president’s behavior, tweeting all over cyberspace that it was the umpire’s fault their Queen lost, and that she deserves congratulations for speaking out against sexism. The Queen’s supporters include official women’s rights spokesperson and former tennis champion Billie Jean King.

The Katrina and Serena show continues as well. They’re joining King in shifting the focus from Williams’ disgusting tirade to the nebulous yet safe and fashionable issue of sexism. (A nice little club here.)

Am I the only one who feels like he’s living in an inverse universe, where values and priorities are turned upside down?

With seemingly everyone congratulating Williams for speaking out against sexism in tennis—by behaving like a spoiled brat because she lost—the tennis court has evidently now joined the football field as a place to air social grievances. (Despite significant differences between the motivations of sore losers like Williams and idealists like Colin Kapaernick.)

If wagon circling of big-money, entitled, immature superstars is where women’s tennis wants to be in the 21st century, count me out.

Osaka

By the way…Naomi Osaka, 2018 U.S Open champion

Tolling Bells?

how democracies die

A year-and-a-half into the presidency of Donald Trump, there have been a number of books about the ramifications of his election. Some are “celebrity” memoirs, such as those by former FBI Director James Comey and former National Intelligence Director James Clapper. But one book that has jumped out of the pack, for me, is How Democracies Die (Crown Publishing) by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.

It goes without saying that the provocative title might be construed as advertising a book-length opinion editorial. This book does point a firm finger at the current government in D.C. (How could it not?) But it goes deeper and analyzes how a demagogic figure like Trump could have been elected in the U.S., and what this means for the future of American democracy. Levitsky and Ziblatt aren’t partisan propagandists, but professors of government at Harvard University who have studied democratic breakdowns in Europe and Latin America, independently publishing books and articles related to world governments, including the U.S.

I’m partway through the book, and hope to share a review in a coming longitudes post. But for now, here’s a teaser, taken from the Introduction to How Democracies Die:

Is our democracy in danger? It is a question we never thought we’d be asking. We have been colleagues for fifteen years, thinking, writing, and teaching students about failures of democracy in other places and times—Europe’s dark 1930s, Latin America’s repressive 1970s. We have spent years researching new forms of authoritarianism emerging around the globe. For us, how and why democracies die has been an occupational obsession.

But now we find ourselves turning to our own country. Over the past two years, we have watched politicians say and do things that are unprecedented in the United States—but that we recognize as having been the precursors of democratic crisis in other places. We feel dread, as do so many other Americans, even as we try to reassure ourselves that things can’t really be that bad here. After all, even though we know democracies are always fragile, the one in which we live has somehow managed to defy gravity. Our Constitution, our national creed of freedom and equality, our historically robust middle class, our high levels of wealth and education, and our large, diversified private sector—all of these should inoculate us from the kind of democratic breakdown that has occurred elsewhere.

Yet, we worry. American politicians now treat their rivals as enemies, intimidate the free press, and threaten to reject the results of elections. They try to weaken the institutional buffers of our democracy, including the courts, intelligence services, and ethics offices. American states, which were once praised by the great jurist Louis Brandeis as “laboratories of democracy,” are in danger of becoming laboratories of authoritarianism as those in power rewrite electoral rules, redraw constituencies, and even rescind voting rights to ensure that they do not lose. And in 2016, for the first time in U.S. history, a man with no experience in public office, little observable commitment to constitutional rights, and clear authoritarian tendencies was elected president.

What does all this mean? Are we living through the decline and fall of one of the world’s oldest and most successful democracies?

Maybe this book can offer some valuable insight into a troubling time in the U.S. I’ll try to share what I learn.

Stay tuned…