The man in my head

Tuesday, May 22: So lucky today.  Shana is in New York with her friend (and mine) Gypsy Snider.  Complicated machinations, but: Shana has an extra ticket to Shakespeare in the Park (friend-in-the-cast ticket, so no waiting in line) and Gypsy has an extra ticket for Hamilton.

I went to Hamilton.

So I watched, and I thought this clichéd thought and that clichéd thought (because every possible thought about Hamilton has already been expressed, at least twice, once in German), and somewhere in the middle of the rap battle between Hamilton and Jefferson, I realized that the actor playing Hamilton probably had a greater understanding about the founding of the American banking system than Donald Trump.

Because at least he’d had to learn his lines.

Heck, I have a greater understanding of the founding of the American banking system than Donald Trump, because I read a BOOK. Trump didn’t even read his own book.

The show that Tracy went to see? Julius Caesar, directed by Oskar Eustis, in which Caesar is a Donald Trump (!) lookalike who gets stabbed to death halfway through the play, as is traditional. Caesar is all “et tu, Brute,” but he shoulda read the play. This staging of a 400-year-old play with a kinda obvious spin — and make it relevant — indicates that Shakespeare knew a few things about how people work. But the production has caused a stoopid kerfuffle with large corporate sponsors pulling their support from the Public Theater, which Eustis heads.

Super secret fact: Sometime in the 80s, I went to see a production of Julius Caesar in Berkeley. Caesar was portrayed as a Reagan type who sought to enslave his people through television. That production was directed by Oskar Eustis.

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Broadway Lafayette station; waiting for the D train (note woman on left)

 

Wednesday, May 23: Steady rain. The Whitney Museum Biennial. Survey of work by young artists of every race, ethnicity, gender, ability, and they all live in Brooklyn. They’re here, they’re woke, and they’re pissed off. Some attack environmental degradation, some battle against oppression of sundry minorities, and some bite the hands that feed them, linking big art donors to the worst evils of capitalism.

At the Whitney. Where investment banks and secretive multinationals have their names on galleries, floors, cafes and drinking fountains. And suppose those works attacking the art-industrial complex wound up being purchased by the patriarchy, allowing the artist to have a somewhat nicer Brooklyn studio from which to pierce the dark heart of corporate cronyism.

Spiraling ironies.

And all of this before the elevation of Donald Trump, who thinks irony is what you make steely out of. Imagine how pissed off the artists are now. Trump is like this magical alchemical substance; add him to anything and he makes it six times worse.

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Lower East Side, Rivington St.

Thursday, May 25: Went to Sweat, a play about what happens in a small town in Pennsylvania when “the plant” closes. Compelling story, well-acted, blah blah blah. These are the people Donald Trump says he’s fighting for, and of course that is fake truth.

How could so many of my fellow Americans be so gullible? Trump is friends with the people who own the plants that closed down and threw millions into economic misery. Except probably the plant owners try to avoid Trump because he makes vulgar jokes and sits down as though he’s been invited. Now they’re probably sitting on an advisory committee for ending poverty in our time.

This is not new. Trump has been exposed more times than, hell, write your own comparison. It’s all old news. I am not thinking new thoughts about him. I want to think a NEW THOUGHT. I like traveling because it often forces me to think new thoughts.

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Aboard the A train to 125th St.

Friday, May 26: Off to the New Museum, that little slice of  heaven on the Lower East Side. Women artists on every floor. I wonder what Donald Trump thinks about women artists. He probably doesn’t even know they exist, a list that also includes quarks, cassoulet, Muddy Waters, the Solomon Islands, Millie Bobby Brown, Edgar Allan Poe, meerkats and human decency.

I have a latte served by authentic hipster youth. I also taste the bitter dregs of Donald J. Trump.

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New Museum; art by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

Sunday, May 28: Grand Central Terminal. One of greatest public spaces in the world. Sitting on the cool marble steps. Staring up at the astrological ceiling. Built in 1903, at a time when America believed in spending taxpayer money to build astonishing public infrastructure. The astonishing NYC subway system opened the following year.

How fabulous. How spirited. How, well, infrastructure is now just an empty promise and our bridges are crumbling, as is the very fine subway I rode here on and the train that will take me up the Hudson. And with the Chaos-in-Chief running things, God knows, GOD knows. Nothing is getting done at a pace remarkable even for the 21st Century.

Turns out I have fucks left to give.

Train time. Be glad to get out this depressing dump.

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I mean, who knows? Sixth Avenue.

Tuesday, May 30: Bedford, New York. Staying with our beloved friends Rachel and Joe. I had suggested yesterday that maybe a trip to Vassar would be an amusing outing.

My mother went to Vassar. When we were living in Pasadena, she was a honcho of some kind in the Vassar alumni association. She spoke of it as a high point in her star-crossed life. The rolling green lawns, the sympathetic professors, the endless opportunities for reading. I wanted to finally see the place.

It was a entirely wonderful. The dining hall where she would undoubtedly have eaten was being remodeled but not torn down. The student union, where she would have undoubtedly wandered, was still standing. There was a plane tree that was mature when she walked to class, probably wearing saddle shoes.

Of course, education is one of the glories of western civilization, along with math and writing and math and astrofuckingphysics, all of which Trump disdains, although of course he knows nothing about it. Resist, Vassar. Resist! Also, get a real bookstore. Books! Damn!

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Vassar. Looks like heaven, doesn’t it?

Wednesday May 31: Off to Hyde Park, ancestral home of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his fabulous wife Eleanor Roosevelt, who really should be on some kind of currency. The house is meh, but the Museum and Library were amazing, worth a detour, allow a few hours.

 

OK, can’t avoid it. Presidential comparisons. FDR courageously refused to let his polio define him, and won the governorship of New York just seven years later. Trump courageously recovered from the bone spurs that made him ineligible for military service. FDR said, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” Trump said, “I have all the ratings for all those morning shows. When I go, they go double, triple.”

FDR said, “Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough.” Trump just lied about something.  He doesn’t care.

The Roosevelt presidency started in a great depression and ended in a great war. And yet it seems a golden time, with adults in charge of everything and a huge push for social justice that dominated those famous first hundred days. Now, babies and cowards are in charge of everything, and nothing whatever is getting done.

Plus the babies and cowards are still whining about Hillary Clinton. She’s the defeated candidate, and somehow she won anyway because no one loves them.

FDR said, “In politics, nothing happens by accident. If it happens, it was planned that way.” Is this still true?  Discuss.

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Every building needs one of those

Friday, June 2: Philadelphia. Baseball game. Giants vs. Phillies. Giants doing very well. Sun goes down. Eat hot dog in a cold bun with radioactive mustard. Has Donald Trump ever eaten a hot dog in a cold bun? It’s an American experience, but Trump is not really an American. Hold that thought.

Saturday, June 3: Today was patriotism day. We went on a tour of Independence Hall, where a few things happened, like the signing of the Declaration of Independence (John Hancock sat right there). Eleven years later, after contentious debate (Franklin used to enjoy tripping delegates with his cane), the Constitution was likewise ratified. The Constitution. That makes it a rather more important than the damn Liberty Bell, which had nothing to do with anything.

There are two facts about those events that I have always loved. First, both took place in the hellish Philadelphia summer, in a smallish fetid room. How could they even think? Second, most of the delegates had some form of dental trouble. And, sweaty and throbbing and often angry, they wrote the two most important documents in the history of democracy. Beat that.

But even better was the lesser known Congress Hall, where both the Senate and the House met in the early years of the Republic. The room is elegant, cool even on sunny afternoon. And it was there that John Adams took the oath of office while an apparently relieved George Washington looked on.

The orderly transfer of power, baby. Lots of governments start with high-minded promises, but the Yu-Nited States of Murica made it happen. The king-god Washington of Virginia allowed a short sour lawyer from Massachusetts to take all the power, without hesitation; that’s what we do. We have, in the course of our history, done many grotesquely awful things, but we have also done that. Every time, we have done that.  Which is why it was meaningful that Barack Obama graciously received the incoming president and rode with him to the inauguration. Because that’s the way we do it.

Could almost make a man cry. Did make me cry, in that cool dark room.

And you can write the rest of the column. Does Donald Trump know what city Independence Hall is in? Does he care? Did he appreciate his participation in the one of our most significant civil ceremonies? Oh, of course not. He’s a worthless grifter and threadbare mountebank. And I wish he’d get out of my head.

I had a great vacation, a fabulous vacation. I should be chill, but  Donald J. Trump is taking up space in my head, always whispering, “this is crap. It’s all crap. Danger Danger DANGER I am here and I hate civilization. Hate! Civilization! (Derisive laughter).”

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree, and a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made. And wattles don’t come cheap.

 

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Sign on a church, Society Hill, Philadelphia. Pray for the wretched.

Photography by Tracy Johnston

Random helpful stuff by Michelle Mizera

 

 

Confessions of a Boy Wonder

I didn’t sign up to be a boy wonder. I was just tooling along at the Chronicle, editing the critics and writing the occasional entertainment feature, a well-regarded professional journalist whose acquaintance with the rigors of daily-deadline reporting was minimal.

Which was fine with me. This was 1969. Woodward and Bernstein were five years in the future; I didn’t realize I could be played by Dustin Hoffman if only I’d been allowed to follow the money. I was 26 years old.

One of the guys I edited was Ralph J. Gleason, a passionate fan of American music in all its forms. Most of his jazz-critic colleagues dismissed rock and roll as boring teen music, but not Ralph. He wrote the first serious review of the Jefferson Airplane ever. He helped start a tabloid newspaper about rock and roll. It was called Rolling Stone.

I wasn’t a boy wonder yet.

Ralph did not ask me to join Rolling Stone; he asked me if I’d be interested in joining a new Jann Wenner magazine, which would do for the environment what Rolling Stone did for rock and roll, or something. Stephanie Mills, fresh out of college with a high profile commencement address behind her (It was called “The Future is a Cruel Hoax;” in it, she declared that she would never have children, which for some reason created a great media stir. Woman Pledges To Remain Childless. Also, water runs downhill.), was the editor. She knew she wasn’t a real editor; she understood her instant celebrity very well. We got on wonderfully. I did the magazine-y bits; she did the saving the world part. It was fun.

But I wasn’t a boy wonder yet.

Earth Times, alas, lasted just three depressing issues (the last cover: garbage floating on water). I made a lateral move to Rolling Stone, wrote a few stories you will not remember, helped put out the Pitiful Helpless Giant issue (Kent State, sit-ins at the Washington Monument, killings at Jackson State), and got fired because Jann, back from joining John and Yoko in bed, decided the magazine was too political. Which is, you know, ironic.

Not a boy wonder yet.

Some of my friends from Rolling Stone were working for a very new magazine called Rags, a counter-culture fashion magazine. The art director was mysterious Mary Robertson . Half the magazine was written and edited in New York, so I spent two weeks a month there. In New York. What the Vatican is to Catholics, New York was to people in the publishing business.

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Rags: Not an ordinary fashion magazine

So I did some reporting and editing in New York, in a drafty office a block away from Max’s Kansas City. Rags was an outlier. (We ran a story called “Clothes for the Dead.” It was about corpse fashion.) Back home, I wrote headlines and captions and participated in some stunts dressed up as magazine features. It is my memory that some marijuana was smoked during that time. The fact that I remember that is a tribute to my attentiveness while much of my brain was otherwise engaged.

But there were some, uh, irregularities, and we came to work one day to see big red patches on the door. Do Not Enter, says the federal government. Something about payroll taxes.

So I embarked on the impoverishing career path of freelance writer. I went to New York a few more times. I had a few adventures. Now it can be told: I was Michael O’Donoghue’s drug mule.

Still was not a wonder boy. Just a guy at the fringes of a crowd, making up sarcastic one liners his head.

So then I got a job at West magazine, then the Sunday magazine of the Los Angeles Times. I had a crafty and fabulous art director (Mike Salisbury), and my prose looked pretty darned cutting edge. (Packaging: always important). Plus, I had worked for Rolling Stone, which was kicking butt, circulation-wise. Wise old magazine people realized that they had somehow missed the kid market, and they wanted someone who had the requisite supply of fairy dust to sprinkle over the magazine to make it wildly popular with those crazy kids with their psychedelic jewelry and naked picnic dancing.

So Hugh Hefner hired me to be the editor of his new magazine, Oui. Because of just a wee little mistake Playboy made, they needed an editor fast; heck, they needed an entire English-speaking staff fast. I could hire anyone. I could pay Playboy rates for stories. I could play my wood flute in the office and roam around in my long white shirts of Indian manufacture. I was not exactly standard issue Playboy executive.

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Oui: The counter-culture through Chicago eyes

Hefner and his minions were undoubtedly waiting for me to fail. They would have had time to make other plans, and as long as I didn’t mess with the nudie pictures, they were OK with that.

But the magazine was a success. Sold out the first issue in three days. The next issue, with 100,000 more copies, sold out in a week. Of course it did! I KNEW WHAT THE KIDS WANTED.

Now I’m a boy wonder. I was 28 (this story started when I was 26). I was swanning around the Playboy mansion, taking first class plane flights to France, recruiting writers in London and going to their parties (whew), and fighting off the Playboy executives who wanted a piece of my suddenly desirable job. Guess who won that?

Around that time, Billie Jean King asked me to help her start a magazine. So I did, WomenSports, and I hired the formidable Rosalie Muller Wright and she hired the astonishing B.K. Moran, and we formed a trio that lasted after the magazine took a different, uh, direction. Heard that before.

Around this time. I was also writing a column for the San Francisco Examiner. They even printed my drawings, which were extremely  amateurish, and perhaps disturbing . Put it this way: If an actual child had produced those sketches, he would immediately be sent for counseling.

Also, other stuff. Boy wonders are in demand. If you hire them to fix things, they will fix them. Or not. Doesn’t matter, because the boy wonder will be on to the next gig. Houston magazine wanted me to be their editor. I KNEW WHAT THE KIDS WANTED.

Could I mention here that I never did know what the kids wanted? I was married, living in Berkeley, with two small children. I knew what they wanted (ice cream, stuffed animals, hugs) but they were under the age of consumption. I just knew what I wanted: Amusing ideas with a certain “let’s throw this against the wall and see if anyone likes it” quality. Plus really good essays, and really fabulous illustrations and, I dunno, legible page numbers.

But still, boy wonder. Hype travels fast. As an official wonder, you can say any damn thing, throw out ideas and aphorisms about magazine publishing you invented on the spot. (“If  page 24 stinks, the whole magazine stinks”). I had many new friends. I knew they would desert me when I stopped being a boy wonder, but, you know, I like friends. Sometimes you like to cash a check even if you know there’s no money in the bank.

I do not wish to radiate false modesty. I wrote some pretty fine stuff. Clay Felker had just bought the Village Voice, and he hired me as West Coast editor. The Village Voice needed a West Coast Editor like it needed a third nipple, but Clay had a Plan.  That Plan  had two components: 1) Starting a magazine called New West, and 2) Somehow managing to sell a majority interest in his company to Rupert Murdoch. Who forced him out. Sad.

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New West: Such a lovely time.

So I worked on then New West start-up (I got a golden spike for my troubles; Clay had class) and opened the Northern California office. And then shit happened and there was Conflict and, as usual when the word “vision” is tossed around, I lost. Fired. Sad.

So a year passed. I was living in Inverness, rusticating pleasantly, when the call came. They were desperate. They wanted me. In Beverly Hills! With a leased BMW! They wanted Wonder Boy. I KNEW WHAT THE KIDS WANTED.

You can read all about it in my last column. We were just unleashed humans with considerable talent playing magazines on Rupert Murdoch’s money.

There was damage. This is the dark part of column. My  wife and kids went with me to Chicago for Oui, then a year later, we all moved back.  I was of no help with the move either way. This did not come as a surprise to my wife, because even before I was boy wonder, I wasn’t home much. I was having a career, making pit stops at home when my schedule permitted. Boy wonders gotta work while their wonderhood is still active.

There was damage. There was a divorce right in the middle of the wonder run. Mostly my fault. It was sort of a B+ divorce. I still saw my kids a lot. The rancor was, if not minimal, manageable. We are cordial now, although it’s not the kind of divorce where our blended families spend the holidays together and go to Gstaad for a convivial ski vacation. That shit is weird, man.

Every choice has consequences.

A few years later, I signed on to do a daily column for the Chronicle. That was my last Wonderful thing. Had a pretty good run. Got married again. Took in cats. I seem to be writing a blog now. Candidly, I think the kids want blogs. And whatever that thing is where you can put walrus tusks on your friends. And world peace.

 

Photography by Tracy Johnston (magazine covers from bound volumes again)

Tech stuff and helpful stuff: Michelle Mizera