Monday, September 27, 2010

Autumn in New York

It’s supposed to be autumn in New York, but signs of it, if evident, are few. Days drift from sultry to balmy to lamely breezy at best, rendering evenings occasionally cool only by comparison. As seasons go, it’s no season at all. It’s too early for nature’s best show: that shocking change of indescribable colors that slips into town for a limited engagement, but too-hastily doffs its fiery bonnet and unceremoniously skips out with let’s-blow-this-town indifference.

Soon, it will be too cold for the lone street-corner sax player—whose thin, labored musical strains I hear every day well before I emerge through the arch of my building— to occupy the wee circle of prime sidewalk real estate he lays squatter’s rights to, to play, tirelessly, (tiresomely for me), the only song he apparently knows, “As Time Goes By.”

A block south of me, a man lives on the street with his dog, his cell phone, and his journals, which he has been observed to pour through, under one of those open-air phone booths mounted on a post. The wife of one well-known New Yorker routinely stops with her dog, crouches down and lingers to chat at length with him. He doesn’t lack guests to his blanketed oasis—yesterday, he was host to a young woman who stroked his disinterested dog as the two parties softly discussed... what? Assured that New Yorkers are not as indifferent as they are perceived to be, not by a long shot, I’m hoping to catch sight of whom among them will offer the man and his dog, inseparable, shelter for the winter. It has to be the best reality show going.

Nothing against man and dog, but truer to character, my heart goes out to the lonely man with a horn. In my mind, I offer him solace. But only on condition of his learning to play a new song. And, if it’s “Autumn in New York,” I readily foot the bills for every lesson for as long as it takes.

Fall is a foolish name to call a season so glorious, and, as the song says, “so inviting.” It’s autumn—in New York or anywhere else. Wikipedia says the word comes from the Old French autompne,
automne in modern French, but doesn’t state what it meant or came to mean in old or new French. That may explain why autumn gained disproportionate popularity as fall. Wikipedia also tells us, “Since 1997, Autumn has been one of the top 100 names for girls in the United States.” But I’ve never met a girl named Autumn. Or Fall. So much for Wikipedia this season.

Autumns in New York may no longer spell “the thrill of first-nighting.” Not when substantially discounted preview tickets are available. But reliably, on every Halloween every autumn, every brownstone on West 69th Street in the two-block stretch between Central Park West and Broadway becomes a story-book haunted house full of thrills and treats for children of all ages. And for the 84th Thanksgiving morning, Central Park West and 7th Avenue (in lieu of Broadway) will become the Main Streets of Anytown for the locals, who gather hours earlier to view and to cheer on the footsloggers and float-squatters of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Autumn is the season for The New York Film Festival and The New York City Ballet; for this season, the overdue arrival of the longed-for Upper West Side Trader Joe’s and, painfully, the imminent departure of the community-prized Lincoln Square Barnes and Noble; the Yankees’ post-season and Christopher Columbus’ Day; plus so much more that is distinctly New York. The season and occasion for a love song to New York that sings to all. All the more poignant, then, to know that “Autumn in New York” was the inspiration of a Russian-born composer, Vladimir Aleksandrovich Dukelsky, who became, in New York, the great American songwriter, Vernon Duke.

Autumn in New York,
It's good to live it again.

Listen to what Ella and Satch do with it.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

I Believe

With my holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, less than a day away, and my happiest season of the year, autumn in New York, only a week away, it’s that introspective time of year for me when I start asking myself again what I believe.

With all respect to God, Torah and the Ten Commandments, I have discovered that what I most believe in is Respect For All. That doesn’t necessarily mean I personally respect all people, it means I
show respect for all.

High up on my two tablets is “Character is destiny.” Because I consider plagiarism a sin (against man) I’ll be quick to tell you that “Character is destiny” is not my line,* it’s Heraclitus’s, a 6th century Greek philosopher. I resolutely hold that “Character is destiny”—for good or ill. Abraham Lincoln’s life exemplified it. Gandhi’s embodied it. We learn it as children, but improvidently put it aside with “childish things.”** Pinocchio personifies the ancient adage, conversely and dramatically, as his nose grows longer with every lie he tells.

Heraclitus, as quotable as the prophets, Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde, may also have said, “Know thyself.” Knowing a good aphorism when he saw one, Socrates prescribed it. The Oracle of Delphi billboarded it. I wish it on others like a blessing or a curse. We know he didn’t know much, but if George W. Bush had only known himself he might have applied himself. He would have made a fine baseball commissioner. If a sober Mel Gibson would come face to face with himself, it’s likely as not he’d either cut out his tongue or his heart.

Some time ago, I was surprised to discover in retrospect that every screenplay I’d written during my misspent Hollywood tenure had a theme in common: “power corrupts” (credit to Lord Acton). How did I fail to recognize in time that every person in a powerful position in Hollywood necessary to deal with was corrupted by power? If “character is destiny,” irrefutably, I know where every executive and producer in Hollywood is bound in the afterlife.

In the absence of the aggregate—respect for all, “character is destiny,” “know thyself” and “power corrupts”—what we get is unavoidably whom we get, and that is the antithesis of what I believe, the exemplarily bereft George W. I have always thought of people as rudimentary empty vessels you can fill with good or evil. The danger resides in their sheer emptiness: who pours what into the void, and to what purpose. W’s trouble auto-started at the top—his empty head filled his shallow heart with comfy platitudes. That left far too much room in his heart for the snake in his garden, Dick Cheney, to ply it with poison.

Is that all I believe? Not in the least. I believe in helping others when I can. I believe in always trying to see the other side. I believe in recognizing what’s more important to someone than it is to me. A legacy from my father, I believe in giving the other guy just a little more to make sure he feels he has half. I believe, with all my heart, in the words of Thomas Campbell, “To live in the hearts we leave behind is not to die.”

Finally this day, my cardinal “commandment” is an imploration to myself and one and all always to
think. Think before you act, think before you speak. Before you do anything, pause… to think. So many of the world’s problems, so many of our personal ones, could be averted by just a little prior thought.

Time to atone.

- - -

*Nor is it John McCain’s, who used it for a title, but not only didn’t put it in quotes, but also gave credit for chapter-by-chapter aspects of it to everyone from Joan of Arc to Wilma Rudolph, from Gandhi to Mark Twain, from Darwin to Mother Teresa—but never, it appears, to Heraclitus, the man who said it. How’s that for character?
**Paul of Tarsus.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Measuring the Golden Rule

Here it is Rosh Hashanah and I’m thinking Confucius and Jesus.

Between the time God created the world and man created the Internet, prophets and pundits created The Golden Rule. They didn’t call it The Golden Rule, in all likelihood because they didn’t recognize its potential mileage. That coinage would evolve from visionary spinners.

Competing religions pounced on it, bequeathing history one of the earliest recorded instances of plagiarism. Notwithstanding, it’s a 24K maxim, an “ethic of reciprocity,” as it’s been called. You can see why “ethic of reciprocity” never caught on.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you is the “to be or not to be” of maxims. Screw up any one of six or seven key words and you’re in danger of altering the meaning—and the effective cadence.

If you’re an English-speaking Confucian, you believe his words are, "Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you." If you’re a Buddhist, the words you would use are, “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” Since both expressions preceded the Christian Era by six centuries, copyright law does not apply. A good thing too, since Ancient Greeks, Ancient Egyptians, Bahá'ís, Brahmans, Jainists, Hindus, Muslims, Catholics and Jews all have their very own rhetorically-mnemonic versions, so subtly varying that the host of do-not-dos begin to sound like doobie-dos. (And there’s scant evidence Sinatra ever had an ethic of reciprocity in mind.)

I think of the Golden Rule on this day of my new year because during this period of reflection it saddens me that the only person I can identify as living by it completely is my seven-year-old grandson. In this, the 21st century of the not-so-good-Christian era, Do unto others as you would have them do unto you has become Do unto others as you would have them do unto others, or, Do unto others before they do unto you. I’m not just playing with words:

Consider that everyone and most action today is motivated by greed, which has its own “golden rule,” pontificated by that contemporary fictional “prophet,” Gordon Gekko, in the 1987 film “Wall Street,” the egocentric justifying, “Greed… is good.” And we see the results of what Wall Street did “unto others” with that carte blanche.

Consider that our country is run by men and women who seem to lose sleep only by virtue of plotting how to undermine each other’s efforts to do something for, i.e., “unto others,” i.e., for, our country.

Consider that in our xenophobia we attack from fear of being attacked, breed hatred because we’re hated because we breed hatred, discriminate indiscriminately out of blind ignorance cynically-fueled. We perpetuate the worst in ourselves to preserve what we mistakenly cling to as our past national, individual and collective, best.

The Talmud states, "What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man. This is the law: all the rest is commentary." I rest my case.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Dodger, the Joint-Custody Dog

When a day starts with the New York Times declaring, “Today, record-challenging heat…” no good can come from adding more heat to it. So, I’m eschewing all public and personal reflections for another week and extending the Dog Days.

Just when you think you think you can’t bear to wipe your wet brow one more time, a cooling breeze wafts across your forehead in the form of—what else?—a lovely story. Since Dodger, pictured above, is not shaggy, and his story, so far as we know it, is not long, this is anything but a shaggy dog story. Dodger, rescued from a pound, is a survivor in joint custody.

Adrienne Albert is a contemporary American composer who loved and lost a dog named Mahler. Mahler, a fawn-colored greyhound, used to sit—cross-legged—on Adrienne’s sofa without budging an inch to make room for anyone else on it. We’re not supposed to speak ill of the dead, but I didn’t approve of Mahler’s manners. He could tell, and could be quite surly about it.

Adrienne longed for, more accurately pined for, a new dog. Her neighbor, Stephanie Burns, rescues dogs and finds homes for them. Stephanie, a truly devoted “dog person” in Adrienne’s admiring eyes, found Dodger at the pound, and not a moment too soon, because he was slated to be put down the next day.

Stephanie did what Stephanie habitually does—brought him home with her to place him with a good family. But Dodger, as you will see, has a way with women. After spending just a wee bit of time with him, Stephanie fell in love, so in love she couldn’t bear to part with him. She decided she would keep him.

Stephanie has two other dogs, one she’s unable to find a home for because he, Buster, has a personality disorder, no doubt from being a dog who needed rescuing, the other, a wonderful beagle named Molly.

Scheduled to be away from home for a month and knowing how Adrienne craved another dog, Stephanie asked Adrienne if she would like to take Dodger for part of the time. Would she! In the time it took Adrienne to say “Yes!” twice, she fell in love with him.

In the course of her bliss-time, Adrienne, aware Stephanie was coming home, asked if Dodger could spend the night. (This begins to sound like a French film.) Stephanie, a modern woman, said she’d already sent Adrienne an e-mail to that effect, namely, suggesting they could share Dodger. They assumed Dodger’s swagger-the-tail complicity.

The result: the two women have the doggonedest of all worlds. Joint custody of Dodger. By day, he lives with Adrienne, who composes at home and often goes out at night. By night, he’s Stephanie’s, whose schedule is the reverse. At the beginning of every week, Adrienne sends her 7-day schedule to Stephanie, who comes to pick Dodger up for several hours each day and brings him back before his bedtime, which is substantially earlier than Adrienne’s, but Dodger is either none the wiser or very cool about it. Before long, conversely, when Adrienne will be traveling, Stephanie will be spending more quality daytime with the happily bi-domiciled Dodger.

It’s all in a Dog’s Day and it’s happening in Los Angeles. Stephanie hopes it will spur additional ways for people to adopt dogs. Citing an existing “huge” animal overpopulation problem, she emphasizes, “If people can work out a joint custody situation, then more dogs can be saved.” Now doesn’t that warm your heart and cool your brow at the same time?