To Fortune and to Fame Unknown

I had planned to do an end of year “In Memoriam” for the heroes and villain who departed the scene in 2017, but you’ve already see a dozen such lists. They tend to be top heavy wth pop culture figures, especially if they air on TV which favors pictures over words and ideas.

So Mary Tyler Moore, Hugh Hefner, Chuck Berry, Don Rickles, Tom Petty, Judge Wapner, astronauts and athletes got most of the attention. Next came people associated with issues, like gay rights and abortion litigants, people in politics like Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Roger Ailes, a war hero from the Band of Brothers, movie directors, playwrights, and tycoons, from David Rockefeller to the founder of Waffle House.

Farther down the list were Nobel Prize winners for economics, medicine, and literature you never heard of. And, if you scroll through “notable deaths” for the year, you quickly learn how provincial the lens is through which we all view the subject.

Just pickling a month at random, September 2017, we find an Italian alpinist, a Czech actor, the 10th Duke of Richmond, an Indian poet, a Chinese architect, a Filipino engineer, a Russian particle physicist, a New Zealand chemist, South Korean author and Mexican boxer. And that’s just the first six days.

In this big, old, crowded, varied world, 55 million people die every year, 105 a minute, and very few make the evening news in their home country. Most, as the poet says, are flowers “born to blush unseen” and die forgotten without a legacy. Yet many might have been Milton’s (or alpinists of particle physicists) had not “Their lot forbade.”

Fame, fortune and accomplishment, that is, can be a matter not just of innate gifts but of the luck of the draw, especially the luck of the opportunities available. Warren Buffett, who is if nothing else rational and unsentimental in his analyses, freely admits that he was able to use his gifts because he was “a member of the luck sperm club.”

By this he means that the intellectual kink in his head that made him so skilled at investing would have done him no good if he’d been born in a time and place that had no stock market, or not to a white middle-class American family in the mid 20th Century, but black in the Jim Crow South, or in a communist economy, or among Amazonian subsistence farmers or Mongolian nomads.

While 55 million individual persons die each year, 150 million are born. Among them what genius, talent, gifts are waiting to be given an opportunity to flourish? Perhaps the Golden Ages of art and literature and science occur not when an especially fertile crop of geniuses is born, but where an average crop of humans is lucky enough to be born. Those with the gifts valued, for a few years, by an Athens, Florence, Vienna or Tang Dynasty get a chance to develop and express what they have in them.

In places plagued with war, famine, pestilence and death, racial, gender, and ethnic discrimination or repressive regimes, an immense waste of such possibilities is the rule. In most places the children of illiterates will probably be illiterate themselves, of peasants to remain peasants. That’s terrible, but even worse is a place such as ours — by historical standards astonishingly prosperous, safe and blessed — that fails to develop the human capital it possesses.

Shouldn’t it be a national policy, not just a slogan, to behave as if a mind is a terrible thing to waste? A potential Einstein will never discover his gift if he isn’t exposed to science and mathematical training, a Michelangelo or Vermeer if they never see a sculpture or a painting and learn how they are made, a Buffett if he is unfamiliar wth economics, capital, profit and loss. And yet, how unfairly, unevenly, unimaginatively opportunities to learn are distributed. Pretty much by zip code or net worth.

In a hyper-competitive world, to fail to exploit our most valuable natural resource — talent and brains — is folly. We are wild to drill and frack and mine very atom of fossil fuels that our country possesses, but too many of the brains that will fuel our future are left undeveloped because it is our national policy to protect our haves from the burden of educating the have-nots. This is a short-sighted plan since invention is as likely to spring from a provincial nobody like Edison as from the heir to the fortune who matriculates at the finest schools because Daddy bought it a building.

We have forgotten what the Founders knew. Jefferson writing to Adams said, “I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents…There is also an artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth. The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature.”

But he thought the talented needed to be nurtured, and an artificial aristocracy of wealth and birth to be guarded against or it would rig the game in its own favor. In particular, it should be considered “a mischievous ingredient in government, and provision should be made to prevent its ascendancy.”

How’s that working out?

Time’s a-wastin’

Thanks to Michael Wolff and the rest of the press wolf pack, we now know a lot more about how the president is performing his duties. We already knew he wasn’t reading, being briefed, negotiating the details of complex legislation, managing the executive branch, or engaging in strategic planning.

Now the details have emerged to show just how productively he spends his time. We already knew he was up bright and early, at 6:30 or so, watching Fox News to see what was being said about him and tweeting in response, or passing on the latest conspiracy theory.

But we now know that his so-called “Executive Time” is actually time spent hanging around the residence in his PJs, and that it extends to 11:00 in the morning. In addition to watching TV about himself, he presumably spends a lot of time creating the coif that Ivanka describes as the result of scalp surgery, elaborate sculpting, dye and spray.

Then he puts in a grueling seven hours or so on the job, which includes watching a bank of three TVs in the dining room next to the Oval Office where he eats his cheeseburger for lunch while seeing what they are saying about him. Then he screams at subordinates, belittles members his family and of Congress, talks to his defense lawyers, and tells the same stories over and over.

At 6:30 he heads back to the residence to eat a cheeseburger in bed, vent on the phone to old friends, and watch TV to see what they’re saying about him. To be fair, he sometimes flies around the country to talk about himself and to bask in applause and adulation. And then he golfs, and eats cheeseburgers.

This regimen has been mocked as appalling narcissism, but it may also be a sign that he is exactly what he appears to be: An angry, old man watching TV alone, reliving past glories and obsessing about slights and disappointments. Who can’t relate to that. Glory days, (the wink in a young immigrant girl’s eye), they’ll pass you by.

More alarming is the notion that perhaps he’s just a supersize 21st Century Man. Thanks to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, the iPhone and other dubious innovations, we can all become stars of our own solipsistic universe, our own personal reality show.

We can tweet our every thought, or blog them, friend and unfriend people, share photos, videos, amateur porn and X-rays of ourselves. We are all at risk of becoming teenage girls, if all we did was write in our diary 24/7 and the diary instead of being secret and locked with a key was shared with the whole, wide world, like a naked Kardashian. “What are the cool boys saying about us? What are the mean girls gossiping about ? OMG, LOL.”

Since Trump is president, he has discovered that every news outlet, foreign government, pundit, diplomat, friend, and enemy worldwide is constantly talking about him. So, he can spend every waking minute exposed to the drama of himself, and can talk back in real time. Or perhaps we should say, unreal time.

What he apparently can’t do is look away. No wonder he sleeps so little. He’s the star of the biggest reality show in history, and the show must go on. Who’s got time to think, read, consider, plan, decide or learn to spell? He’s busy in hair and make-up, preening, orating, reacting to bad reviews, and gazing in the cyber-mirror while tweeting the news far and wide that he’s the fairest of them all.

Pathetic and comic, but we are all in danger of vanishing down the same rabbit hole to Wonderland. And we can assume productivity in general will suffer if everyone who is supposed to be working for a living is checking their newsfeed, tweeting, texting, trolling, sharing, friending, and posting. If this goes on, not just the government will grind to a halt, but every office and factory. Luckily, the robots are about to take over every job, so we’ll be able to devote ourselves constantly to our real lives online. Every man his own avatar.

Still, it’s worth considering what’s being lost. Keats died at 25 having written just 54 poems. If he were working today, wouldn’t he be making time to text Fanny, tweet, and send snaps of himself to friends instead of struggling to write a bunch of Odes about Urns, Nightingales and Autumn. Shelley lived a bit longer, dying at thirty, and left more poems behind, but if he had become addicted to tweet-storms he probably would have had very little time for Skylarks, the West Wind, Adonais or Ozymandias.

Lord Byron died at 36, but from what we know about his character he would probably have loved sending pictures of his package and cyberstalking women as much as Anthony Weiner, and swiping right and left on Tinder, so he might not have bothered writing about that chick who walked in beauty like the night, Don Juan or Childe Harold. We’d be lucky to have a dirty limerick from him.

Van Gogh died at 37, but managed to cram over 800 paintings into that time, but if he’d been on the web he’d have been lucky to have produced 400. Mozart, same thing. Dead at 35 with over 600 compositions, but if he’d spent 10 hours a day of “Executive Time” on the internet or watching TV, he might only have left behind a jingle or two.

There is a silver lining, however. The next Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs probably won’t have time to invent the next infernal machine. They will spend their lives wasting time on Facebook, their iPhones, and Twitter.

Books and TV: 2017

Almost none of the books I recommend here were published in 2017. I seem always to be catching up. So much to read, so little time.

1 An exception was “The Undoing Project” by Michale Lewis, about the odd couple of Israeli psychologists whose deceptively simple experiments revealed our minds are only occasionally rational, analytic organs. Their work unintentionally spawned behavioral economics.

2 That led me to “Thinking Fast and Slow” by one of these worthies, Daniel Kahneman. Must reading if you hope to make sense of yourself and the world we keep making a mess of.

I habitually read new novels about the Israeli spy Gabriel Allon, the good cop under the bad regime of the Nazis, Bernie Gunther, and LA Detective Harry Bosch, so:

3 House of Spies
4 Prussian Blue
5 The Wrong Side of Good-bye

6 I am also catching up with the works of Tana French concerning the Dublin Murder Squad, so “The Likeness.”

Little by little I am working my way through the complete works of the fine American novelist Ward Just who writes about Vietnam, newspapering, and political power in Washington and Illinois. So I added to my shelf,

7 “The Weather in Berlin”
8 “In the City of Fear”
9 “American Romantic”

!0-15 I read the WWII novels of Olivia Manning, known collectively as “Fortunes of War,” but generally found packaged as “The Balkan Trilogy” and “The Levant Trilogy.” To my mind they get better as they go along, so if your patience is limited, try the Levant.

16 In a post of December I extolled anything by film historian David Thomson including his latest “Warner Bros.”

17-18 I also posted earlier about another author I am slowly reading all of, the literary biographer Charles Nicholl. This time I polished off “Somebody Else” about Rimbaud’s lost years in Africa and “A Cup of News,” a life of Thomas Nashe. The latter is probably only amusing to a reader interested in the lesser Elizabethans.

19 “An Open Book” tells how Michael Dirda from a blue collar Ohio family in the 1950s wound up the longtime book editor and reviewer of the Washington Post. By becoming besotted with books ay an early age, of course.

20 For a trip to Boston my daughter read and i reread “Paul Revere’s Ride,” like everything by David Hackett Fischer, historical reconstruction at its best.

21 And “Born A Crime,” Trevor Noah’s story of growing up a mixed-race child in the South Africa of apartheid, is equal parts horrifying and inspiring due to his unstoppable mother.


I conclude the year with a fast canter through the fruits of the tube that attracted me.

Two comedies: 1 Veep and 2 Full Frontal
Two Sci-fi series: 3 The OA and 4 Stranger Things

5-9 Several series about bad behavior: “Taboo,” “Better Call Saul,” “Bosch,” “Fargo,” and the ironically titled “Good Behavior,” the last a kind of “Justified” lite.

10-13 The Final seasons of four shows: “Turn,” and “Major Crimes” ended tidily, “Orphan Black” triumphantly, and “The Leftovers” far more movingly than I would have expected. “Orphan” boasted the astonishing tour de force of Tatiana Maslany playing a dozen clones and “Leftovers” Carrie Coon and Justin Theroux as damaged lovers. Coon was also excellent in “Fargo.”

14-17 Series from abroad included “Tunnel: Sabotage” with the reliably excellent Stephen Dillaine and Clemence Poesy as a British cop and his French counterpart, the Italian crime family of “Gomorrah,” creepy serial killers and the female, French cop who hunts them in “Witnesses,” and an Israeli undercover squad about as morally questionable as the Palestinian terrorists they pursue in “Fauda.”

18-23 Finally, documentaries, including the first two-thirds of “The Story of China,” “Five Came Back,” “Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold,” “Do Your Job: Part II” about the coaching staff of the New England Patriots, and the biography of a writer, “The Untold Tales of Armisted Maupin.”