What Really Happened at The Dinner

Trump: Ye, my friend, so glad to see you again. Your view of things is so unusual.

Ye: Well, I like Hitler. You know, every human being has something of value that they brought to the table, especially Hitler. I just said that on an interview with Alex Jones, one of our good guys. Why isn’t he here? He knows the Holocaust was fake news. That’s why I brought my dear friend with me, Nick Fuentes. I think you know him.

Trump: Never saw him before in my life. Oh, wait a minute . . . Charlottesville.

Ye: He’s been a good Jew hater from the early days. Now y’all need to get into my campaign to run for president. Don, I want you to be my vice president.

Trump, screaming: You out of your fucking mind? You got no chance at the presidency, bro, not while I’m running. . . .

Of course, what they really said at the dinner is largely beyond imagining and beyond satire. One could just as well try to imagine what Xi Jinping said when he was informed of the recent massive protests. Axios made an attempt to render what the fawning Fuentes said by talking with “sources” present—but never succeeded in finding a smoking gun, just a bunch of servile compliments to Trump.

 I do have to give credit to Andy Borowitz, who wrote that white nationalists gave “scathing Tripadvisor reviews” of the service and food at Mar-a-Lago: “too many ethnic dishes,” they said.

Why Beethoven, and Why Now?

Some of you know I had a partial career as a music critic years ago. (Most everything is now “years ago,” it seems.) I wrote about jazz, the record business, ‘70s rock and, later, classical. My writings were all ephemeral; but the music is not. Most all of it is on record in one form or another, the wine and the dregs.

When I was growing up, a lot of Beethoven echoed in my house. Music was an intrinsic part of our lives, and Beethoven was at the heart of it. I’ve talked about that here and in a book I wrote but not much about Beethoven. Well, the Eroica symphony was a revelation to me as a teenager because it completely broke new musical ground. When I began to really listen to the string quartets in college, they became touchstones of my musical life. Jazz was my daily fare, Beethoven the haute cuisine.

Last night, over leftover noodle casserole, I listened again to all three Rasumovsky Quartets, from Beethoven’s middle and troubled years. There is no music in the world like this. Here is Opus 59, no. 2 of these masterpieces.

I won’t give you a critique here, rather some thoughts that the music evoked. First, the surprising turns this music takes: I remembered that critic Whitney Balliett once called jazz “the sound of surprise.” The three quartets embody surprise in abundance. Second was the stark contrast between the world this music projected and our own disjointed times—the ways in which Beethoven could render his disjointed life and times in the coherence and power of his musical speech.

Later I was to think about how the Eroica Symphony and later the Rasumovsky quartets revolutionized the music of Haydn and Mozart. Here’s how Joseph Kerman put it in his classic work on The Beethoven Quartets:

A new world was being explored, and if the string quartet was going to find a place in it at all, it had to smash the fragile, decorous boundaries set by the classic image of chamber music, . . . a new “symphonized” quartet necessarily had to come into being (p. 151).

Haydn and Mozart provided the building blocks, but the decorous age was clearly over, another instance of the surprising ways the 18th century changed thought and art.

There is no analogue today. The crudeness of our pop music and the irrelevance of much contemporary classical offer no relief from the social and political chaos around us. When I’m hungry I go back to Beethoven.

The recording I listened to is a two-SACD set by the Tokyo String Quartet. The sound is extraordinary, their interpretations exemplary. I have other different but interesting renditions on vinyl by the Guarneri, Budapest, and Juilliard ensembles.

Beethoven would go on to even greater heights of expression in the Late Quartets, one of which (the C-Sharp Minor, Opus 131) would change the way I thought about music forever. More on that later, perhaps.

Antisemitism and Crow Jim

Antisemitism is much in the news lately. So a big controversy continues over Dave Chappelle’s monologue on Saturday Night Live last week. I found most of his comments about Jews perceptive and funny. Others did not. You can read some excerpts and watch his full solo gig here; a verbal transcript is here.

Chappelle was really targeting the kind of phony socio-political correctness that informs the way we talk and think about matters racial. One commentator put it this way: “If Jews are on the receiving end of the jokes that forces this conversation, that is certainly uncomfortable, but it is also important, and not antisemitic.”

Well, Jewish humor often hits on the faults and foibles of their coreligionists. I’ve heard Italians privately do this too, and Chappelle often takes comedic whacks at black people. Who knows the in-group better than one of its members? Still, there’s the old saw that a lot of people still find true: It’s OK to joke about Jews if you are Jewish; otherwise it’s antisemitic.

As a secular Jew, I’ve often made fun of my people. It affirms my connection and the Jewish uniqueness. When outsiders do it we should look for the line between satiric humor and hate. This is usually not hard to find. The Reverend Al Sharpton used to dispense more than his share of loathing for Jews. Black folks let him get away with most of this repellent antisemitism.

Many negative comments about whites began in the “Crow Jim” era as some black jazz musicians protested against white attempts to play their music. In 1950s Chicago, friends of mine lived across the street from Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam temple, home to his radical Crow Jim-ism. Meaning all things black would finally shake off the inferior white culture and escape its attendant evils. We used to watch these guys get into their black Cadillacs to go and play golf. We would talk with them without any discord. Black Power was both understandable and unachievable.

Today racial hypocrisy is very much on the rise. The old metaphors become dangerous: when was the last time you heard “calling a spade a spade”? But in a way that’s what Chappelle was trying to do. I watch a lot of CNN and sports channels. Almost every ad for every product now features black or brown people. It’s quite amazing. You could call it advertising’s guilty attempt to make up for years of excluding these folks. The obviousness of the gesture conveys its own crudity.

Chappelle made a couple of foolish statements in his monologue. He said that African Americans can’t be blamed for the Holocaust. Wake up, Dave, nobody’s doing that. It’s ridiculous to defend idiots like Kanye and Kyrie Irving but he did so while poking fun at them. Herschel Walker he finds “observably stupid.”

I think Dave wants to be an equal-opportunity comic, but it’s hard to do that these days. He made some great comments on Trump. Still, I tolerate his flaws because he’s perceptive and funny.

A Slight Loss of Control

Some fans have urged me to write more about aging. It is a rich topic, especially for one at my age (88). I offered my general thoughts on the matter a couple of weeks ago, but that was the tip of the iceberg, so to say.

Every aspect of aging seems to have three components—physical, psychological and social—and they’re all interlinked. There’s a very thorough and intimidating treatment of this on Wikipedia. Read it while you have your late afternoon cocktail. (Why do all discussions of aging always recommend easing off the booze? They totally ignore the psychological and social benefits.)

So today I want to talk not about dementia but about mental deficiency as it creeps up on you. This is normal yet disturbing. Myself and many friends have experienced loss of short-term memory. You know, forgetting your keys, the last name of a friend, where you put something. This is so common that it’s unremarkable. Yet it upsets a lot of us.

Often when you’re trying to recover a forgotten name it will come back to you a few moments later while you are thinking of something else. So your memory is still functional; it’s just taking its time to sift through all those long-unused cells in the mental library.

And sometimes the name or the word doesn’t come back. Well, calm down and search out related aspects of the word on Google. This will often trigger an association that can make the connection and turn your light bulb on. The usual fear and distrust of technology in elders is well-placed. But you have to learn to make tech work for you. I talked about some of the problems here in “Computer-Assisted Headaches.” We elders have to stop being intimidated by technology and learn simply to ignore what we can’t understand.

Keeping your mental alertness is key to solving many problems of aging. I have IBS, a too-common bowel disorder. So I complain again to my doc, who says that after all these years “you know more about this than I do.” I’m skeptical but as I experiment with treatments, nostrums, remedies natural and unnatural, I find some success in dealing with it. And I use the internet a lot.

Bottom line: your apparent loss of mental (even physical) control can often be compensated by using what’s left of your brain.

What we all worry about is keeping our mental acuity. Well, you’re never going to keep the edge you had at age 20 or 30. After 70, we all decline, so what can help? The usual advice is to exercise more, learn a new skill, play games and solve puzzles, dance, meditate, eat a good diet, and so on.

I think the most important way to keep sharp is to involve yourself regularly in a mentally challenging activity you love. For me it’s writing; for someone else it’s hiking or volunteer work or cooking. When you feel depressed, anxious, irritated with someone, or too isolated, don’t give way to it. Get back to something you really treasure doing.

That’s not just a bromide, folks. Example: when the blues take over, I turn to the music I love and I can regain an equilibrium from that. We need to remember to engage with the things we love.

American Food, Part II

Holiday promotions are part of the food and beverage industry too. Miller Lite knows how much you love to drink beer under the Christmas tree, and their Keg Stand will cost you $50, beer not included. They tell us supplies won’t last long.

The apparatus holds the tree on top with “room for a quarter-barrel keg (which holds the equivalent of about 83 bottled beers) and ice bucket underneath. Finally, a hole in the top of the box allows the tap’s spout to fit through so revelers can pour a beer right next to the tree.” Miller also sells beer-infused ice cream bars. Well, who knew?

The wizards of the food industry are constantly bombarded by the food police and the advocates of organic food. I think the only thing wrong with organic food is the folks who promote it and their high-handed convictions in the cause. They feed on many platitudes and attitudes about food.

I’ve maintained that people with some degree of education generally know what foods to eat and what’s good for them. (Is that true, I wonder?) Still, food science marches on. Researchers claim that fat (not obese) people live longer. So, how much weight is too much, guys? Another elaborate study on fruit flies tells us that human taste buds operate like those in the bugs to make up for diet deficiencies.

You want science like this to control your diet and your life? I mean, what’s wrong with sandwiches? Stuff ‘em with lettuce if you want your greens. Did you know that pizza is the best-liked food in the world? How frightening is that? I live around the corner from a great farmers market so I’m fortunate not to be subject to the onslaught of the packaged, processed, fatty foods that outrage the food police.

We all seem to be captive to our childhood preferences in food. For many years I had a thing for French toast and bacon in the morning. Those associations with breakfast die hard. You know about Proust and the madeleine dipped in tea? Taste, memory and associations together make us into creatures of the past.

So sometimes, as I said here, we simply have to give way to our built-in historic preferences. The alternative is food guilt, and who needs that?

American Food

Those of us lucky enough to be brought up in a genuine gastronomic culture can be either snooty or appalled by American food—or at least the diet that most Americans eat. Authorities keep warning us that such food is not only unhealthy but dangerous.

This diet typically is high in sodium, refined sugars, omega-6 fatty acids, trans fats, and excess calories. It’s also low in the vitally important long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA. People who maintain a diet loaded with simple carbohydrates (such as bread, pasta, potatoes, rice, fruit juices, and sugar) have an increased risk for problems with their digestive system, liver, pancreas, heart, circulation, and overall brain health.

Not to mention the American addiction to junk food like hamburgers and French fries, Twinkies and Coke. Full disclosure: last night I cooked myself a really good hamburger and ate a salad with that to temper my misbehavior, finishing off with a little Haagen-Dazs and a cookie. I say OK to such indulgence once in a while. Harkening to dieticians and the food police can make you feel guilty, not to say hungry.

Poor people eat more junk food. It fuels obesity, but it’s cheaper and provides instant gratification. Do the hordes of MAGA supporters eat anything but junk food? Look at the way Trump eats.

Food manufacturers spend billions of dollars on research and development to create flavor profiles that trigger the human affinity for sugar, salt, and fat. Consumption results in pleasurable, likely addictive, effects on the brain. At the same time, massive marketing efforts are deployed, creating powerful brand loyalties that studies have shown can trump taste.

The best thing about American food has always been its simplicity and freshness. A good steak, fresh fish, corn on the cob, non-processed cheese, fresh greens and fruits—this is the stuff I grew up on. Hopefully you did too.

The latest gastronomic traditions in American cooking can compete with the best in Europe and Asia. And the fact that we have incorporated the traditions of French, Italian and Asian cookery in our food provides variety and nourishment of a different and welcome sort.

However, living in Mexico really tests your ability to avoid junk food. Snacks and soft drink consumption is off the charts. The government puts labels warning of excessive fat, sugar, etc. on packaged food. Their impact has been negligible. Recently the state of Oaxaca passed a law forbidding the sale of high-calorie and sugary drinks to minors. Permit me to be skeptical, since here obesity even in the young is out of control.

The best food in Mexico, as in the U.S., is the freshest and most nutritious. Beans, vegetables, fruits and even corn tortillas are everywhere. The better restaurants serve up endless variations on these staples, often with great flair. For lunch I just finished a large taco of chicken, mushrooms and refried beans, all dipped in a bit of Heinz Ketchup to show biculturalism. Beats McDonald’s every time.

Retreat of the Elders

This is for those of you who have reached your advanced years and are now flirting with the attractions of solitude. Sometimes, it seems, this can be more than a flirtation.

Here are the symptoms: a penchant for eating at home; fewer visits with friends; a preference for books over TV; souring on politics and current affairs; pique with the common culture; suffering fools gladly; and so on. Covid, of course, made things worse.

You go to a party where most of the folks there are your friends. The conversation is the usual chit-chat about local happenings, friends who are ill, movies you’ve never seen, restaurants you never visited, travel plans you’re not concerned about, political opinions you don’t agree with. You drink too much and leave early.

It’s about feeling “out of tune,” as Wordsworth said in his poem “The world is too much with us.” When the vibes are bad it’s like you’ve come from a different world, captive to “a creed outworn.” You are out of tune with the common culture (or so it feels), with its emphasis on escape, schlock or shock in pop art, films, and more. To confirm this, take a jaundiced look at New York Magazine’s stories in The Cut and Vulture.

The urge to withdraw from it all, I think, is not just limited to us elders. People everywhere seem to be getting a bellyful of all the institutions of state, the customs and the verities we grew up with and trusted. Why else would so many swallow Trump’s patent medicines and hokum? What is MAGA if not an escape into a surreal fantasy? How did the craziness of Brexit take hold of so many Brits? All of this represents a kind of withdrawal.

We oldsters turn sour on so many things because we’ve lived long enough to lose most of our innocence. Yeats said it best in “The Second Coming.” You seniors may remember these lines.

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

So many sages have told us that aging is simply a loss of innocence. I don’t entirely buy that. I still remain innocent to many things, open to ideas, good books and conversation, thoughtful people, art and music. There’s just a whole lot less to be open to now. And that, my friends, requires regret but no apology.

Speech for Mr. Biden

Back in the salad days of 1992 I wrote a stump speech for Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa who was then running for president. The campaign liked it, wanted to use it, but Harkin dropped out of the race shortly after. Great timing, John. So here’s another one for President Joe. The independents are frustrated with him, largely because he doesn’t really speak to their issues.

My fellow Americans . . . and all those who didn’t vote for me:

Today, let’s talk about some painful issues, things that have come about in your lives and mine that are a little uncomfortable to speak about. I’m talking about the personal costs of inflation, the global economy, and the dreadful state of our politics.

I’m not going to give you an “America the beautiful” approach today. Inflation, I know, is what’s affecting all of us. It can be brutal—especially for those with low incomes. And it continues to rise unabated. The Consumer Price Index has jumped at an 8.2 percent annual rate—and that’s a 40-year high.

Compared to a year ago, food prices have gone up 11.2 percent. What I want to tell you is that this isn’t just an American problem. It’s global. You’ve heard the stories about famine in under-developed countries. People in our own country continue to go hungry.

Fires, famine and floods don’t have to be part of the human condition.

But inflation affects the price of most everything, not just food. Rising rent costs are driving many protests. Healthcare costs rose nearly 1 percent in September, the most in two years. New cars and most consumer goods cost more. I know: I’m telling you what you already know.

How to fix this? It won’t be easy. The Federal Reserve is working to get more people employed, but that can be a long haul. Claims of unemployment have jumped dramatically in states hard hit by the recent hurricanes. The labor market is very tight. Republicans have offered no—I repeat no—provisions to deal with any of this. They’d rather scare you with talk about how crime has taken over the country. Yet our most immediate goal must be to stabilize the economy.

Pocketbook and life issues are central to that. Covid is not beaten and could be merely in recession. And rising American healthcare costs are going to cripple the economy. We have to get them under control, but frankly that depends on winning you over to vote with us in the midterms and beyond. The opposition has no plans to fix our healthcare. For them, it’s not a right but just another business.

Ditto with gun control and abortion, the personal freedom issues of our times. The upcoming elections will determine whether we can make abortion legal again through new legislation. We simply must do this!

What I’m asking is that you simply vote for freedom over obstruction. Republican opposition leaves no room for compromise. And their obstruction begins and ends with Donald Trump’s conspiracy theories. The Big Lie about the 2020 election basically proposes a vast conspiracy to defraud the voters. If you believe in that, I have another bridge to sell you.

I won’t berate you here with the accomplishments of my administration. That doesn’t cut much ice when many of you are concerned with putting food on the table. I also know that many of you don’t want to return to the chaos and anxiety of the Trump years. As Americans, you know that we can do better, much better.

With your help we will do better! Thanks for listening.

Herschel

I tried to get into the real story about this guy, but it turns into a labyrinthian tale of more and more compromised women, abortions, and unacknowledged sons. So much media attention (e.g., here and here) has followed the Walker revelations that it almost dulls the controversy.

The moral implications of Walker’s behavior have often taken a backseat to the political implications of his candidacy. And columnists love to quote him: “Since we don’t control the air, our good air decided to float over to China’s bad air, so when China gets our good air, their bad air got to move. So it moves over to our good air space. Then, now, we got to clean that back up.”

The consensus is, certainly, that Republicans will never dump him because sanity and morality don’t count but votes do. Conservative commenter Dana Loesch said: “I don’t care if Herschel Walker paid to abort endangered baby eagles. I want control of the Senate.”

Politico’s John Harris looks at Herschel and similar phenomena from a more global standpoint. He sees a widespread antipathy toward sexual freedom. “This movement—anti-sexual liberationism is a bit of a mouthful—is what unifies Putin, Meloni, the supporters of Herschel Walker and many other people. . . . It is a reactionary movement marked by all kinds of contradictions.” It may also signal a new virulent kind of identity politics.

But most practicing political commenters make the issue a moral one. They find Walker’s lies and breaches of basic decent behavior disgusting and vile, not to be borne in a Senate candidate. The Democrats are betting on this approach, hoping to enlist women in the fight against Dobbs and the Roe decision. No one is sure that will carry the day.

Republicans stress the economic issues as the real incentives that drive voters. Polls seem to support them. Herschel’s jumbled thoughts and word salad won’t deter them. He will parrot the party line where he can and the yahoos will stand up and cheer.

It’s pretty hard to confront these issues rationally. Climate change, race, and abortion won’t sell to those who challenge the fundamental nature of reality—or to those who find these things irrelevant to their lives. And yet, the GOP has blown its case on how such things matter to working people.

They have been into conspiracy theories since the days of Newt Gingrich and Pat Buchanan. One thinks about the Bush administration and Saddam Hussein. The predictable result is Alex Jones and a Herschel Walker.

Death is an abstraction until it’s not.

 

Death is the ultimate fact of life, notwithstanding all the trite stuff that’s been written about it. And of course it’s not all trite. I recently reread T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” surely the ultimate poem about this subject. It brought forth strong feelings about recent losses of people in my life:

“I had not thought death had undone so many,” says the narrator.

My son Ethan died in July from a fall in his apartment. He was fifty-two. Mentally ill for many years, his death ended a sorely troubled life and yet was so undeserved. We knew it might end this way; still, the shock of it jolted the family beyond words.

Two friends of mine from the music world recently passed—Sy Johnson in July and Charles’s wife Sue Mingus last month. I interviewed Sy in the early 1970s for my book Mingus Speaks (for which he provided photos of Charles and Sue). My reflections on Sy are here and here. We continued our friendship long after Mingus’s death from ALS (another horror story).

Sue and I had several engaging sessions of talk in the Mingus apartment—about Charles, the book and our life connections in Chicago/Milwaukee. We connected again more recently at gigs of the Mingus Big Band at the Jazz Standard in NYC. Sue managed the band and the other Mingus aggregations, attending every session and personally dishing out checks to the musicians at the evening’s end.

For many of us the dead are in suspended animation, a presence forever. Roger Angell, a fine writer/editor for The New Yorker, wrote an affecting piece in 2014 about the ongoing power of remembrance of those passed. I loved his stuff. He died in 2022, aged a hundred and one.

We geezers carry about a bulging directory of dead husbands or wives, children, parents, lovers, brothers and sisters, dentists and shrinks, office sidekicks, summer neighbors, classmates, and bosses, all once entirely familiar to us and seen as part of the safe landscape of the day. It’s no wonder we’re a bit bent. . . . The dead have departed, but gestures and glances and tones of voice of theirs, even scraps of clothing—that pale-yellow Saks scarf—reappear unexpectedly, along with accompanying touches of sweetness or irritation.

The dead maintain their presence in so many ways. Memories agitate or sustain us, fill out our lives with joy and grief. It’s like watching old shows on black-and-white TV.