We spent Christmas out in Santa Monica, visiting with Diane's brother Ben at his house in Pacific Palisades. Christmas day, when all the presents had been torn open, some of us went out for a walk. It was a beautiful, clear day, maybe 75. We sauntered down the Palisades hill past the 1920s Italianate villas, across the overpass that spans the Pacific Coast Hwy., to the beach, where we joined some of the local "homeless" guys watching the surfer boys and surfer girls shoot the curl. Later, we hiked back up the hill and ate a goose.
It was my first Christmas in L.A.?as Alex Cockburn said to me later when I told him about it, the ultimate American holiday: a day at the beach and Christmas dinner. East Coasters like to complain about the very idea of Christmas in Southern California, as though it were some sort of sacrilege?the extravagantly balmy weather, lights strung in the palm trees; it all just seems antithetical to the national ideal of a White Christmas. (Like we've had a lot of those here lately.) I liked it just fine. You have to give yourself up to the pleasant absurdity of it, the way the locals do. One of Ben's friends, a transplant there like he is, told me she spent Christmas afternoon out on her porch in a bathing suit, giving the dog a bath. She relished the ridiculousness of it. It's like the video Ben took this summer of the magnificent black-eared bobcat who came up out of Topanga Canyon to hang out with her cub in the backyard, menacing the family's snack-sized housecats. Like the paw prints on the wading pool where the manic coyotes stop for a drink. Ridiculous. L.A. is ridiculous.
Two nights later we drove out to Pasadena and got taken to dinner at the Athenaeum, Caltech's fabulous old Beaux Arts (or technically I guess Faux Arts) manse of a faculty club. There was semiformal dining amid the leatherbound volumes of the library, and a wedding reception in a big, Florentine Renaissance-themed hall, and brainy-looking grad students stumbling up the stairs from the rathskeller, and oil portraits of Nobel laureates in mammoth gilt frames on all the walls, and Mexican waiters cadging furtive smoke breaks out in a columned atrium that was open to a sky full of warm stars and a huge, soft-looking moon. I loved the place, all phony California formality and expertly faked antiquity; I don't know quite how to explain it, but there's a surreality to anything stuffy and old-fashioned in Southern California that makes me giddy.
Our host was Rudd Brown, an old friend of Diane's mom. Rudd's a granddaughter of William Jennings Bryan. Her mother was a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt and a diplomat to some European country under FDR. Rudd herself ran for Congress twice in the late 50s/early 60s as a lonely liberal Democrat in Orange County; she's got a photo of herself sandwiched between JFK and LBJ, both of them leering at the handsome young woman she was. A former husband, Harrison Brown, was a famous Caltech geochemist. She's been coming to dinner at the Athenaeum a couple times a month for something like 40 years.
A word about those "homeless" guys of Santa Monica. They're nothing like the "homeless" we have here. You can't call them "homeless," not the way we mean it here. These guys are like old-fashioned hobos, or bums. Predominantly white, able-bodied, scruffy but generally clean enough, some of them look like drunks or drug burnouts (acid, I'd say, not crack), but a lot of them are strapping, healthy, bearded, blue-eyed mountain-man types who go about their leisurely and not terribly unpleasant-looking lives of panhandling the malls and sleeping on the beaches with a hallelujah-I'm-a-bum joie de vivre that suggests this is a lifestyle choice for them. They're not society's outcasts, not poor unwed mothers who've fallen through welfare's safety net, but old-time opted-out freeloaders. I saw one jolly graybearded Old Slappy sort of coot working a sidewalk outside some shops with a neatly handlettered Hungry?Please Help sign leaning up against a backpack better than any camping equipment I ever owned, wearing a pair of brand-new hiking boots. It would make you feel like a complete mook to give a guy like that a nickel. He's lucky someone really hungry doesn't beat him for those boots.
I got to thinking about Old Slappy when I got back here and picked up Jesse Jackson's new book, It's About the Money! (Times Business, 278 pages, $23). It lists his son Jesse L. Jackson Jr. as the coauthor, and says it was written "with" Mary Gotschall, a business journalist, who you can bet did the actual writing.
Jesse Jackson hawking himself as a smart money adviser. How big a comedown is that? Do you know he's one of the three people I ever voted for in presidential elections? I wrote him in one year. In fact, I wrote in my other two presidential votes as well. They were also black people?dark horse candidates, if you will. My little statement about the state of affairs. The others were Dick Gregory and Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm.
Jesse and Dick Gregory were symbolic protest votes, but to this day I think Chisholm would have made a great president. I base this on the Big Baby theory of international politics, which states that global affairs are largely the by-product of senior-citizen brats enjoying their second childhoods on a grand scale, and all the rest of us pay for it. If you accept this premise, then for a president you either want another brat who can play in their league, or a strong maternal figure to slap them down and make them behave. Americans vote for the former a lot, so why we can't go for the latter is beyond me. (The Democrats had their chance to nominate her in 1972 and typically muffed it. The chinless wimp McGovern did them much good, didn't he.) It would have been literally impossible for world leaders to act disrespectfully or indeed disobediently toward a stern, matronly President Chisholm. She could have taken three or four of the worst bad boys by the ear, sat them down and not let them up until they'd agreed to play nice together. Who would have dared sass her? Qaddafi? Arafat? Brezhnev? Pish. She was a skinny little thing, but she was from Brooklyn, and she was the first black woman in the U.S. Congress, and they would have behaved.
Well, it's been a long time since I'd vote for Jesse Jackson, even as a symbolic protest. What's the protest? He's been firmly and inextricably up the establishment's heinie for years now. I liked him as an outsider. I suspect even people who don't like him preferred not to like him as an outsider. As an establishment figure he's become just another pompous, eminently untrustworthy fraud.
The title of "his" book falls just short of calling the intended audience Stupid, but the writing is pitched at such a level of kindergarten condescension you'd have to be really ignorant and poor?too ignorant and poor to want or buy the book?not to find it offensive. The advice is entirely aimed at children and stupids: how to start a savings account, how to stay out of credit card debt, how to shop for a mortgage, how Wall Street works. It's insulting, and amazing, that Jesse Jackson of all people would put his face and his name on a book that tells poor people that if they want to make it in this world they've simply got to get better at managing their household finances and investing their spare cash on Wall Street. There's a chapter on how the Internet works, so that all the poor folk can sit down at their home computers and become successful day traders. Jesus. What a limousine liberal Jesse has become. How out of touch.
To make things worse, he lays a thin veneer of his usual bombastic preachifying over the elementary school lessons. Some "shareholders, not sharecroppers" pep-rallying, the inevitable invocations of Dr. Martin Luther King's sacred name, and passages of burghermeisterly unction like this incredible bit: "The Bible has scores of passages reinforcing the theme of financial prudence, including repayment of debt. 'The wicked borrows and does not pay back, but the righteous is gracious and gives,' as Psalm 37:21 teaches us. Faithful management of money will yield a surplus, which is a major goal for Christians, enabling them to tithe to the church and thereby respond to the needs of others."
Butter wouldn't melt. If I were to tithe myself for some well-dressed mendicant fuck, I'd give it to Old Slappy first.
I loved the way Saturday, at least in my neighborhood, didn't feel like The First Day Of The Next Thousand Years. It didn't even feel like New Year's Day. It just felt like a Saturday. Maybe even quieter and calmer than most Saturdays, because more people were sleeping in, hungover or still out of town. After all the buildup of anxiety and expectation, the deflation was instant and final. Did you notice how quickly Times Square emptied out Friday night? Yahoo yahoo yahoo, then by 12:30 it was a ghost town, just the cops and the trash and Katie Couric left.
Welcome to the 21st century. Feel any different? Me neither.
I was similarly uninspired by most of the year's/century's/millennium's end magazine and newspaper issues that came lumbering down the lane in the waning weeks of December. Literally everything Time and the Times had to say on the matter was boring. I tried to deal with the Jan./Feb. Tikkun, featuring "Prophetic Visions: the New Millennium," but couldn't get much farther than remarkably smarmy editor Michael Lerner toasting himself for all the press he gets. After that there seemed to be very little that was either prophetic or visionary, mostly a lot of Tikkun's patented Jew Age softheadedness along the lines of, "The great challenge of our time is to build and nurture sustainable communities."
For dumber than Tikkun, one can always turn to Rolling Stone. Its "Millennium Special" issue was the one with the cover that evoked Sgt. Pepper's, except with a lot of nudes thrown in. What does that tell you? The central conceit was, like Tikkun's, polling a lot of famous people for their views of the 20th century and predictions for the 21st. Because mostly rock stars and comedians were invited, the results were largely stupidity and vapidity?visions of the future from geniuses like Jewel, Ellen DeGeneres, Billy Joel and the startlingly unavoidable Trent Reznor.
For me, boomer, the most appallingly self-serving fraudulence came from David Bowie, who declared, "Popular music is becoming a conveyance of information rather than a sparkling and vicious-toothed vocabulary of the new. Rock & roll is a dying religion. In terms of being a revolutionary force of any kind, I think it just doesn't have that clout anymore..."
Like he would know. What a self-serving, egomaniacal, 52-year-old fuck, to conflate all of rock 'n' roll with his own way-past-prime career. Mr. davidbowie.com?he's not a rock star anymore, he's an ISP. If he'd written, "My music is becoming a conveyance of information rather than...," etc., he'd have been closer to the truth.
On an altogether higher plane of intelligence, it was intriguing that both The Economist and The Nation chose to look back, not ahead, in their century-ending issues. I guess you could expect The Economist to produce a "Millennium special edition" that reviewed the last 1000 years of history, but The Nation's "Alternative History" of the last 100 seemed an oddly reactionary gesture.
Read together, though, they made nice bookends. The Economist was a great thumbnail history lesson, heavily slanted, of course, toward a kind of Manifest Destiny theory of Western development that shows all things progressing toward a free and gloriously booming global capitalist economy. Along the way, it paused to mull signposts like William's Domesday Book of 1086, or Henry's destruction of the monasteries in 1539: "In Glastonbury, on November 15th, Richard Whiting and two of his monks were tied to hurdles, dragged by horses up Tor Hill and there hanged, drawn and quartered. The abbot's head was set up to adorn the abbey gate, and his limbs put on show in nearby towns." (Too bad Jesse never met Henry, only Bill.) A fine, thoughtful issue of a magazine I admire.
The Nation stitched together soundbites from 100 years of its editorial to build what it called a "Nation's-Eye View" of the 20th century. There was a presumably unintended self-mockery in entries like "The Motor-Car Problem" from 1908: "The motor car has admittedly come to stay because of its marvelous convenience and because it is, when properly used, a genuine aid to good health. But how shall it be regulated?" Among the few surprises are Mark Van Doren waxing rhapsodic about Disney's Snow White in 1937, and everywhere through the early decades of the century a rather querulous editorial opposition to radical or extremist ventures of all stripes, whether black shirts or Fenians, Syndicalists or Wobblies.
One of the most intriguing entries is W.E.B. DuBois declaring, "In 1956, I shall not go to the polls. I have not registered. I believe that democracy has so far disappeared in the United States that no 'two evils' exist. There is but one party with two names, and it will be elected despite all I can do or say..." I hear that. Who was he complaining about? Eisenhower versus Stevenson.
Finally, year-end mopery from one of our favorite whipping boys: Don Hazen, aka The Masher, who writes a kneejerk, braindead "Media Mash" column for AlterNet, online home to some few dozens of lousy "alternative" weeklies around the country like the East Chickamauga Gazetteer & Shopper and the Millionaire Hippie's Ocean View Express. He opened his last week's "Masher Millennium Review" with the idiotic nonobservation: "The end of the Millennium should mean something big in the world of media, right? Well, not exactly. In many ways the year continued earlier trends of dot-com mania, Microsoft struggles and media mergers."
As they progressed through the column, the observant AlterNet reader (sic) might have noticed that Hazen's mumblings had nothing at all to say about the millennium; it was just another kneejerk year-end wrapup of everything a kneejerk "alternative media" time-server could be expected to wrap up, with editorializing along the lines of, "Time will tell how much change the momentum from Seattle will produce. But there seems little doubt that a new generation of protesters, many sons and daughters of '60s parents, have had their lives altered by the success of shutting down the WTO in Seattle." And: "Perhaps it is wishful thinking, but '99 helped the Masher feel that concern about media concentration is slowly moving up the food chain of issues that the larger public and opinion shapers care about. The feisty attitude in fighting monopolizer AT&T on broadband Internet access exhibited by some cities, like Portland, Oregon is one sign. Another is the fact that Bob McChesney's book, 'Rich Media, Poor Democracy,' has been widely, and for the most part fairly, reviewed and is selling beyond what was expected."
Oh yes, the feisty Portland resistance movement and Bob...um, McChesney. The media moguls quake.