Category - commentary

Acerbic observations on the state of the world, art, politics, and culture.

Seasons of Solitude – My Pandemic Year

(or: How I spent My WinterSpring SummerFall Vacation).

(This post is a revision of an earlier opus posted to coincide with the actual anniversary of the pandemic/quarantine. That version was more than 4,500 words. Shortly after I posted it I learned that the Nashville writers collective The Porch is compiling an anthology about the plague year, with a maximum word count for submissions of 3,000 words. So I cut and revised, submitted what follows on March 25, 2021, and still await a verdict re: acceptance or rejection. In the meantime, the guidelines say that posting to my own blog is ‘fair game.’)


1. Winter: #HomeAlone

March 13, 2021 marked a full year of the condition I’ve recorded in my journals and social media posts as “#HomeAlone.” I guess that was #HomeAlone Day 366 – since 2020 was a leap year.

Maybe it’s enough to say that a full year into the pandemic, I am still among the living. There are now more than two-and-a-half million Covid victims around the world who cannot say the same.

We have lived through a full cycle of seasons with Covid. It started in the winter of 2020, tore through the spring, the summer and the fall, and now here we are in the spring of 2021. Even with the vaccines, it could be a another full cycle before we can return to whatever passed for ‘normal’ before the virulent little bug first appeared.

Everybody on stage for the finale: Dave Olney tribute/memorial at the Belcourt – March 9, 2020

The last public event I attended was a tribute concert for the iconic singer/songwriter David Olney (Spotify link) – who died suddenly after collapsing on a stage in Florida in January, 2020. As friends and fans gathered the evening of Monday, March 9 at the Belcourt Theater in Nashville, there was casual recognition that something ominous was in the air, but it had yet to dawn on anyone that this might be the last concert we would attend for more than a year.

I worked my part-time job – peddling gizmos for a tech retailer – at the mall in Green Hills on Tuesday March 10 and Wednesday March 11 – which was the day the World Health Organization declared that the novel Corona virus had become a Global Pandemic. My customer interactions that day were normal, but I second-guessed myself after shaking hands a couple of times. By the end of the second day, co-workers and I had resorted to hand waves and fist bumps.

The next two days I was not scheduled to work. I watched too much TeeVee news, read too many online accounts, and tried to make sense of the invisible asteroid that was about to smash into the planet. I tried to separate useful information from the bubbling brew of hysteria. And I wondered how I was going to explain to my employer that because I was born while Harry S Truman was president, I am in the “high-risk-for-mortality” age bracket – and maybe I shouldn’t be coming into work for a while?

The day before my next scheduled shift, I called the store and said, “I’m a little concerned about coming to work today.” A few hours later the woman who runs the whole operation called back and said, “OK, we will take you off the schedule – and find someway to keep you on the payroll until you can come back.”

As I told my therapist at the time, that was such a moment of unexpected and unconditional support that it nearly brought me to tears. Actually, strike the “nearly.”

The next day my company closed all of its more than 300 stores in the U.S. and sent tens of thousands of employees home. The whole world went into panic mode and started running out of toilet paper.

And I started using the hashtag #HomeAlone. I’ll stop using it when I return to work in the store.


2. Spring: Expanding Waistline

I had started using a grocery delivery service a couple of months earlier; Once I entered the “I’m not leaving the house” zone, I came to rely even more heavily on such services.

Knowing the risks they were taking, I tipped the drivers generously. And I imagine I was quite the comic vision in bright yellow rubber gloves, washing and rinsing all the packages in the kitchen sink before putting them in the cupboards.

Thankfully, I already had more than enough toilet paper for the one person in the house who needs it once a day, but I might have started over-stocking on certain other staples. The freezer in my basement is still provisioned with a six-month supply of frozen proteins, and I still get weekly deliveries of fresh milk, orange juice, and eggs. And Oreos. Oreos have become my Quarantine Comfort food. I’m quite certain that I have single-handedly kept Nabisco in business for the past year.

It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that I really didn’t do much for the first few months besides eat. What I did do was get fat on Wheat Thins and cheese in the afternoons and a honkin’ bowl of Purity Cookies and Cream that I scarfed down with some late-night comedy around 10 o’clock every evening. From March to July I went from 173 pounds and jeans that were already a bit tight in the waist to 184 pounds – and the next size larger jeans.

Once it became apparent that nobody was going anywhere to do anything for months to come, the commentaries in my daily newsfeed ran the gamut from “don’t feel guilty about not doing anything during a pandemic!” to “use this time to do all the projects you’ve been putting off!” I did a bit of both.

Harvey Schatzkin & Ellen Gould, ca. 1943

On the ‘get busy!’ front, I played my guitar some, and returned to a project that has been lurking on the back burner for a couple of years.

I have in my basement a scrapbook stuffed with all of the letters that my parents exchanged in 1943 – the year between when they met and when they were married in January of 1944.

Most of that time future-father Harvey was deployed to a weather station in Greenland (you’d be surprised how vital weather information from the arctic circle was to the aviation war effort in Europe); Future mother Ellen stayed home in St. Louis, and they exchanged the sort of letters that war-time love stories are made of.

A while back, I’d started reading those letters, using voice-recognition software to transcribe them into digital text. Now with nothing but time on my hands I returned to that undertaking, reading and dictating several of the letters every day.

Harvey and Ellen’s letters, aka “The Pile.”

I am drawn to the letters in part because I never really knew my father. He died from cancer in 1958, at the age of 37; I was only 7 at the time – the age, my mother said later, when he was just starting to do things with me – like the night in October, 1957 when he took me out to see if we could find Sputnik wandering among the stars.

From his letters, I can tell that my father was a man of humor and depth – and was, uncommonly, passionately devoted to the woman he would marry and father three children with. Thanks to Covid and the afternoons spent combing through those letters, I have over the past year spent more time ‘in the presence of my father’ than I did in the few years when were both alive.


3. Summer: Life Is Better With The Top Down

As the months wore on, my part-time job went through numerous work-at-home iterations. To its credit, while millions were being fired or furloughed, my employer kept everybody on the payroll. But there really wasn’t a whole lot for us to do.

For the first few months, we did a lot of video conferencing, studying online manuals and guides to keep our knowledge and skills sharp in the event we returned to the store.

The store tried to reopen in the spring and called us all in for some “socially distanced” sales training.

It was weird driving into town for the first time in months, though it did occur to me that one upside of a global pandemic is the relative absence of traffic. It had been so long since I’d been to work, I had to consciously remind myself of the route that I take from my home in Pegram to the Mall in Green Hills: “Oh yeah, I get off the Interstate here… I turn here… wait, where the hell is everybody? Oh, look, plenty of places to park.”

Walking into the the Mall, I got my first taste of who was or was not wearing a mask – and I discovered how irritated I get whenever I see somebody with a mask that doesn’t cover their nose. I’m writing this nine months later and that still pisses me off – but I have learned to stifle my irritation – if barely.

With Covid case numbers still rising, the reopening date was postponed once… twice. When it was postponed the third time, they didn’t even bother to reschedule. The store stayed closed all summer and well into the fall.

In July, the company sent us specially configured computers so that we could join the online-and-telephone sales force. I am now a telemarketer.

I am genuinely grateful for the benefits my company has continued to provide – like health insurance (even though I am old enough to qualify for Medicare), weekly Covid tests and generous discounts on all the gizmos that I have come to rely on even more heavily in all these months of digitally-mediated isolation.

And I must admit that that those bi-weekly pay checks provide an essential buffer between daily deliveries from Amazon and having to compete with the cat for food.

When my shifts ended early enough – especially after Daylight Savings kicked in – I amused myself with almost daily drives in my Mustang convertible along the curvy backroads of this part of Tennessee on the outskirts of Nashville that I like to call “West Bumfuque.”

When there isn’t much else going on in your daily life, there is a lot to be said for putting on a cap and sunglasses, putting the top down – and downshifting and stepping on the gas coming out of the backcountry curves while a carefully curated playlist throbs from the stereo.

They said I’d never find what I was looking for: a Mustang Convertible with 6-speed manual transmission. But there it is, even in the color I wanted: Ruby-Fucking-Red.

Since there are no passing lanes along my routes, my idea of an “an achievement” in those days was going the whole 15 or 20 mile route without getting stuck behind a slower car in front of me. Suffice it to say my average speed was well above the posted limits.

Every such excursion reminded me how fortunate I am to live in the country, and offered a new appreciation for the fresh-cut fragrance of a farm no matter how fast I drove past it. But I did wonder if the people I zoomed past noticed, perhaps saying to one another “there goes that crazy guy in the red Mustang again!” – and again, and again.

I remember how anxious I was the first time I had to stop for gas. One of the info-nuggets that circulated during the early Days of Covid was that the virus could be transmitted through physical surfaces like a gas-pump handle. I adopted the practice of carrying my yellow rubber gloves with me when I went to the gas station. I panicked slightly one time when I left the store after paying and opened the door with my bare left hand instead of my gloved right.

Maybe it’s just fatigue after nearly a year, but I am less reluctant now to enter public spaces – though I still prefer curb-side delivery. Recently I ran to a restaurant in town to pick up a take-out order. While I was there I observed a surprising number of people seated at tables – and wondered if there was a revolver on each table with a single bullet in the chamber.


4. Fall: The Social Dilemma

Like everybody else in the world, I have defaulted to a virtual reality. Almost all of my social interaction is through screens of one kind or another. My laptop and tablet are always on, relentlessly tempting me into the bottomless abyss of doomscrolling.

Even more so than before the pandemic, Facebook has knotted itself into the daily fabric of my life. Here in the Covid Bunker, Facebook offers the persistent illusion of social contact and stimulation – in its compulsive, simulated way, filling the vacuum that forms in the absence of a real world.

It’s hard to separate the good that Facebook sometimes does from its insidious side-effects.

On the one hand, through Facebook I recently recently struck up a correspondence with a dear friend from junior high school I hadn’t spoken to for several years. When she wondered about my near daily #HomeAlone posts, I informed her of my divorce two years ago. We’re in the same boat, so to speak – only 2,000 miles apart.

There is also a group page keeps me connected with my neighborhood out here in West Bumfuque. Early in the lockdown, when the grocery stores ran out of staples, one of those neighbors supplied with me a huge bottle of ketchup.

On the other hand, Facebook is a relentless distraction, never more than a mouse-click away, and the cultural impact of its pernicious surveillance model has been widely documented.

I feel the same way about Facebook that I felt about Scotch and vodka before I quit drinking – but I’ve been saying that for years. For now, though, social media is the easiest place to go when I feel the need to unload some snark and irony – or if I just want people to see that I really – literally! – haven’t gone anywhere.

My “Work-At-Home” Station

My work has gone entirely online. Three-and-a-half days each week, I take calls from people all over the country, usually telling them why they are not going to get the gizmo they want when they want it – and asking sarcastic, rhetorical questions like “you do know we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, don’t you?”


Back in October, after one particularly arduous shift, a woman I’d ‘swiped right’ with started sending me text messages, and I just wasn’t in the mood.

That’s when I put a name on the condition that defines my year.

I have been living in an “Isolation Feedback Loop.”

I am alone, and, yes, it gets lonely. Now leave me alone.


5: Redux: Winter and Spring – Again

Given my age, the case numbers and the unfathomable death toll over the past year, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that staying healthy has been no mean feat. As fellow Boomer Fran Lebowitz put it it in a recent NPR interview, “I think I’ve been excellent at not getting Covid – because I have not gotten it.”

Staying alive has mostly meant staying #HomeAlone. It’s just me and my screens and Buster the Demon Cat, who showed up over Memorial Day weekend thanks to a (mostly) Facebook friend. See? There’s that whole Facebook conundrum again.

Click the picture to see all the “Daily Buster”s

Buster is my constant companion, following me all over the house as I make my daily commutes from the bedroom to the kitchen to the office to the living room and back to the bedroom. Every morning begins with her nestled in my arms, nuzzling my chin and purring her little heart out while I type in my journal.

While friends and acquaintances have turned this year into a period of extraordinary output – writing books, writing and recording songs and posting an infinite stream of Facebook Lives and videos on YouTube – the only thing I have done with any consistency is make photos of Buster and put them on Instagram and Facebook. When my grandkids ask, “Grandpa, what did you do during the pandemic?” I’ll just say “I put cat pictures on the Internet.”

Oh, wait.. I don’t have any grandkids – even though I turned 70 back in November. I had a step-granddaughter for a while, but lost her in the divorce, too.

One upside of all this solitude was rediscovering extended, linear concentration in the form of an ancient information technology called “books” – which I read sitting on my deck, watching the sunset while hummingbirds hovered at the feeders overhead.

Honestly, it hasn’t been all solitude and screens. I’ve had a few lunches with friends – outside, on sunny autumn days. I’ve gone for hikes in the park. I have spoken with neighbors that I hadn’t spoken to since the divorce (“I got the house but she got the neighbors…”). And, speaking of my domicile, I see my housekeeper every other Tuesday. I can’t imagine the squalor I’d be living in were it not for her.

But I can count the total number of hugs I have had since March, 2020 on the fingers of one hand.

From peak-to-trough, minus 30+ lbs

At the end of July, my Wheat-Thins-and-Ice-Cream-Quarantine-Diet peaked the scale at almost 185 lbs, and even the expanded-waist jeans I was wearing were starting to bind. That’s when I decided to try a regimen “Interim Fasting” that I learned about – where else but? – on Facebook. In my case, “fasting” mostly means I stopped eating those honking bowls of ice-cream every night at 10:30.

I walk four to six miles around my neighborhood every day, repeating the route so often that I’m surprised there is no rut in the pavement. I use an app to count my calories, and on March 4 I hit my goal weight of 155 lbs – the first time my weight has had a “150-handle” since I was in my 20s.

As March, 2021 draws to a close, I am – thanks to my advanced age and, at last, a competent Federal government – fully vaccinated.

As the prospect of a return to some semblance of normalcy shines over the horizon, I am beginning to detect the visceral changes that this year has imposed. I seem to be going through the world very differently. Maybe spending an hour or two nearly every day just walking at three miles an hour has rewired my internal wheel-works. Maybe that explains why I have found new comfort in books and words on paper and less patience for words on screens.

A few weeks ago, some prophet scrawled on a New York subway wall that “after the plague came the Renaissance.” There is good reason now to shed the gloom of the past year and begin to imagine the world reborn – the bright light that will shine upon us as we emerge from this long, dark tunnel.

When the pandemic is over, I’ll be able to say that I survived. I hung out with my dead parents. I put cat pictures on the Internet. I kept my job and learned new skills. I lost 30 pounds. And I read more books in a year than I read in the five years prior.

I didn’t get sick, and I didn’t die.

Now, where are my shades?

The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls…

*** Wisdom From A Typewriter No. 60 ***

I might be paraphrasing a bit here. The quote went by pretty quickly in the middle of a screening of “Without Getting Killed Or Caught,” the documentary about Guy Clark (and Susannah Clark and Townes Van Zandt for good measure). He was actually recalling how he captured the refrain from his signature song, “L.A. Freeway,” which became the title of his biography by Tamara Savarino.

Watch the trailer:

Sorry Boss, You Were Duped

I’m talking about your Super Bowl commercial.

Yes, I appreciate the message. After four years of chaos, the “Reunited States of America” is a soothing sentiment.

But as your two-minute mini-epic rolled across my screen last night, something didn’t settle right.

It dawned on me only slowly who I was listening to. “Wait… I know that voice… who is that? Whoa! It’s Springsteen. Doing a commercial? Have the end-times arrived? The same guy who wouldn’t let Peter Bogdanovich use his recordings in a movie about a true-life character who loved his music – that guy was now doing a Super Bowl commercial?

By the time I recognized the dulcet voiceover, I had already seen the Jeep logo and the unmistakeable Jeep grille and I knew who the commercial was for. Those frames were followed by more stirring, folksy images of The Boss in his cowboy hat, riding his Jeep around wintry midwest land-and-city-scapes (did anybody stop to wonder who was that crazy dude riding around in the open Jeep in the dead of frozen-fucking-winter?) all the while invoking comforting sentiments about “common ground” and “the middle.”

The spot ended and I was still trying to figure out what I had just witnessed when I recognized the source of my agitation.

Oh yeah.

Cognitive dissonance.

There is more going on here than meets the eye or ear.

For starters: “Jeep” is a revered American brand. We are not reminded of that until the very end of the spot, when a simple trio of graphic images informs us that this year is the 80th anniversary of the Jeep brand.

The Jeep brand is only 9 years older than Bruce Springsteen


The “jeep” has a long and storied history.

All those SUVs we see on the roads today can trace their origins back to the opening days of World War II, when the Army gave a company called Willys Overland less than two months to produce a prototype of the first four-wheel drive vehicle ‘General Purpose’ vehicle, or the “G.P.” G.P. – get it? G…P…. Jeep. That light, utilitarian vehicle became a staple during the War and in every war movie since. Hell, my parent’s first ‘car’ was a Jeep.

Harvey and the Army surplus jeep he named after my Aunt Elinor, whose nickname was “Bumps.” Milton, NJ ca. 1948

Now, I’m gonna take a little space to confess to a bit of a mixed relationship with Bruce Springsteen.

I like his music as much as any red-blooded American Boomer, though I’m not as obsessed with as his most rabid fans. My sentiments toward “The Boss” are more personal and rooted in our common backgrounds

He grew up in essentially the same part of New Jersey that I did. His home town of Freehold was the seat of Monmouth, the county on the Jersey shore where I spent the 11 years off my childhood. And when I hear about his days at the Stone Pony or see the title of his first album, ‘Greetings from Asbury Park,’ I conjure fond recollections of those carefree days when my grandparents took me to ice skate or ride the carousel at the Casino on the Asbury Park pier.

Nowadays, when people ask where I’m from I tell them “I’m from Springsteen Country – Monmouth County, New Jersey.”

But wait, there’s more: When my family moved closer to New York, I found myself going to junior and senior high with a kid named Max Weinberg. Max was a drummer. His band – The Epsilons – was the band my friends’ bands were always losing out to in competitions for school dance gigs. It’s no surprise that Max went on to become the drummer in Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band, and perhaps one of the 10 or 20 most famous drummers of the late 20th and early 21st century. When he shows up on TeeVee I think “I know that guy…”, and he is the most sought-after figure at our high school reunions. Everybody has a Max story.

Max Weinberg, slayer of teenage band ambitions.

As for Springsteen’s music, I truly enjoy the highlights like “Born to Run” and “The Rising” – and ignore the low-lights (not that there are really all that many). I’ve seen him in concert three times, but always found those big arena shows, while full of buoyant energy, kind of frustrating. Invariably the sound was distorted to the point that lyrics are unintelligible, though I observed that most of the people around me didn’t care because they know the lyrics by heart anyway. I do not know all the lyrics by heart. Not even “Born to Run.”

Nevertheless, I have all the requisite respect and admiration for Bruce Springsteen’s artistry, his integrity, his honesty, and the way he has turned his life into a vehicle of phenomenally successful commercial art. There is no denying that “Born in the USA” offered the perfect counterpoint to Reagan’s union-busting and tax-breaking in the 1980s.

So at first blush, it seems entirely fitting that one American icon would endorse another in a wide-screen ode to National Unity.

And it grieves me slightly to confront the nagging sense that something is awry here.

It took The Google and Wikipedia to get beneath the surface of this seemingly benign two minutes of Sportsball Interruptus.

Now I am beginning to understand the cognitive dissonance.

And once again, “the medium is the message” (#TMITM).

In the piece that I posted last week about the Insurrection and the Inauguration, I referred back to a seminal text to explain the difference between “content” and “conduit” – the “message” and “the medium.” Then, quoting from Nicholas Carr’s 2010 book The Shallows, I tried to articulate the distinction:

…whenever a new medium comes along, people naturally get caught up in…the “content.” The technology disappears behind whatever flows through it – facts, entertainment, instructions, conversation…

“Our focus on a medium’s content can blind us to [its] deep effects. We’re too busy being dazzled or disturbed by the programming to notice what’s going on inside our heads

That why I think The Boss was duped: dazzled by his ability to create brilliant content, Bruce may have lost sight of the larger context. The content, in other words, got lost in the medium, which in turn conveys the underlying message.

Poking around the web last night after the game, I found this New York Times account of the spot’s origins and development:

When [marketing exec Olivier] François received the script for an early version of the Super Bowl ad, he sent it to [Springsteen’s manager Jon] Landau. Within 24 hours, he had a virtual handshake deal with Mr. Springsteen… Mr. Landau said the Boss had created the ad with his own creative team. “Bruce made the film exactly as he wanted to, with no interference at all from Jeep,” he said.

Fair – and effective – enough.

Still, despite the uplifting sentiments expressed in high-def and surround sound in my living room, something about this spot left me scratching my head.

For starters – and as I learned from the Times – who even knows that the iconic American “Jeep” brand is now owned by a multinational conglomerate based in the Netherlands called Stellantis?

Does it not seem at all ironic that this poetic call for American Unity comes from a company based in Amsterdam??? A company that we have never even heard of?

Stellantis? What the hell does that even mean?


That’s why, despite all of his admirable good intentions, I don’t think even Bruce realizes the underlying dynamic in this seemingly benign endorsement.

What Bruce missed is that a message like this does not get through mainstream media – it certainly doesn’t merit the many millions it takes to air a two-minute spot on the Super Bowl – unless it serves the imperatives of the companies that are paying for it.

The content of the spot may be national reunification, but the medium – and thus the subliminal message – is monolithic multinational corporate capitalism. The very forces that eviscerated the working and middle classes that Bruce Springsteen has championed for nearly fifty years are now using his voice to appeal for “unity” – not only to sell more Jeeps, but to quietly mollify us.

Because buried in that message is our acceptance of their corporate dominance of our political economy.

While you are comforted in a warm, emotional appeal, please ignore the fact that companies like Stellantis are contributing millions of dark dollars to cap the minimum wage, secure tax cuts for the rich, turn a blind eye to the environment, deny health care to millions, and ultimately perpetuate the same forces of oligarchy, discrimination, racism, patriarchy, etc etc. that Bruce Springsteen and Co. have crusaded against or nearly five decades.

With our eyes and ears we see and hear “The Boss” soothingly intoning his call for ‘reunification’ – but what’s going on inside our heads is the subliminal message that invisible, heretofore nameless multinational corporations are looking out for us and trying to bring us together.

Don’t buy it.

The people that own “Jeep” are not your friends. They are not your neighbors, and they don’t care if you get another $1,400 in pandemic relief – or that somebody in your family has died from the pestilence.

They just want you to think warmly about their brand, and accept them as our benevolent corporate overlords.

I don’t mean to discourage viewers from enjoying the spot; if you found it touching or moving or otherwise meaningful, good for you. I was moved by it, too. But also unnerved.

I might be overstating the case to suggest that by serving his own purpose while serving the sponsor’s that Bruce was “duped.” I’d like to think he took all the angles into account in his calculations. He seems smart that way.

Still, they cleverly waited until deep in the 4th quarter, when the outcome of the game was already certain, when we were all beer-buzzed in a cheese-and-crackers coma to present their message – subliminal or otherwise.

And they got Bruce Springsteen to go along with it.


No, really… who drives an uncovered Jeep around Kansas in the dead of winter?


Deep Thoughts: Brain Damage and
The High Water Mark of the ConLunacy

It’s been a few weeks now since a mob of fugitives from reality staged their clown-show coup attempt on the Capitol.

In the weeks since, millions, probably billions, possibly trillions of words have flashed across digital screens to assess the damage.

Here now are my two-cents worth of pith in that vast ocean of virtual verbiage.

Cent The First: In which I offer some high-altitude observations about technology and the way our brains process information in an attempt to make the case that America doesn’t have a political problem – it has a mental health problem. The ‘net effect’ (pun intended) of all this new technology is a raging, widespread – dare I say, pandemic? – case of undiagnosed #BrainDamage.

Cent The Second: I keep coming back to an historical analogy that struck a few days after the siege at the Capitol. I’ll get to that near the end. Bear with me, this is a long one…


Peer with me now into the verbal kaleidoscope through which I have viewed all things since roughly 1968, when I first encountered the work of a certain Marshall McLuhan, who wrote in 1964 that “the medium is the message” (#TMITM).

Marshall McLuhan

That expression gets tossed around a lot, but it’s not clear that any of the pundits who do the tossing really know what it means, so herewith a simple explanation from the pen of the master himself:

“Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication.”

–– Marshall McLuhan,
The Medium is the Massage, 1967

Writing at the peak of the broadcast era in the mid 1960s, McLuhan described the impact of electric communications on a world that until that point had evolved around print media:

After three thousand years of explosion, by means of fragmentary and mechanical technologies, the Western World is imploding… Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace…

…which extension, McLuhan coined further, led our arrival at the outskirts of a ‘Global Village.’

Fast forward to the 21st Century. What would Marshall McLuhan make of the Internet? We cannot know, because McLuhan died in 1980 – about the time I first went online with a 300baud modem, dialing up a service called ‘The Source‘ (and later Compuserve). That was 13 years before I first learned of the actual Internet: In the late fall of 1993, I discovered Listserves and User Groups. The first Netscape web browser arrived about a year later.

Absent McLuhan’s mystic oracle, it falls to a new generation of witnesses to adapt his theories to these new media, networks, and devices.

In the introduction to his 2010 (think MySpace…) book – The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains (hell, just the title oughta be some kind of clue) – author Nicholas Carr picks up the torch that McLuhan set down when he moved on to that great media lab in the sky. Carr combs through the dense, often opaque verbiage of McLuhan’s seminal works from a half-century earlier to distill the pertinent elements for the digital era:

“McLuhan understood that whenever a new medium comes along, people naturally get caught up in…the “content.” The technology disappears behind whatever flows through it – facts, entertainment, instructions, conversation…

“Our focus on a medium’s content can blind us to [its] deep effects. We’re too busy being dazzled or disturbed by the programming to notice what’s going on inside our heads

“The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts,” McLuhan wrote. Rather, they alter “patterns of perception steadily and without resistance…”

(italicized emphases added)

In other words,

“Media work their magic – or their mischief – on the nervous system itself…”

To underscore that point, consider this (only slightly) over-simplified illustration of how a brain on paper pages differs from a brain on digital ‘pages’:

As you read these words on a screen, does it occur to you that the characters, sentences and paragraphs you see are not really ‘there’?

When you read a book or a newspaper, you are reading solid characters inked onto a fixed surface.The letters are permanently imprinted.They are ‘there.’

Persistence of vision? Let General Motors explain it all for you (ca. 1936) (click image)

Now consider for a moment how a movie works. What the brain interprets as ‘moving pictures’ is based on a phenomenon called “persistence of vision” – each frame of the projection remains impressed upon the retina when the next frame appears a fraction of a second later, creating the illusion of motion in the brain.

Persistence of vision is at work when you read text from a screen. Printed words and images exist outside the brain; digital words and images exist only inside the brain. On a computer, smartphone or tablet display, the characters you read are painted in pixel fragments before your eyes; the characters don’t really exist until your brain assembles the pixels into what you think you see. Compared to reading printed text, the brain is working very differently, lulled into the illusion that it is reading ‘text.’1 The brain circuity is effectively re-wired to recreate the experience of reading printed text. Therein lie the origins of America’s mental health crisis.

Returning to The Shallows, Nicholas Carr concludes,

[We miss] what McLuhan saw: that in the long run a medium’s content matters less than the medium itself in influencing how we think and act.”

Staring at our gizmos, as predicted in 1906 (click to embiggen)

By now, how we act is fairly obvious: we’re staring at shiny glass objects in our hands all day, massaging them with our thumbs in an infinite quest for both tactile and psychic gratification.We can’t so much as stop at a red light without at least feeling the impulse to reach for your gizmo.Got any new email? New likes? What’s that sound?Oh, the guy behind is me honking cuz the light’s turned green…

All of that is in the realms of what we think. How we think is less obvious – until an event like January 6th seizes our collective attention with a mind-altering what. the. fuck?

It should be equally obvious by now that ‘what the fuck?’ is really pretty simple.

It’s the Internet, stupid.

All this new technology has ripped a galactic tear in the fabric of our information universe and torn loose the underpinnings of the political and economic foundations of society. We witnessed the culmination of all that disruption in the halls of Congress on January 6th .

Where McLuhan was writing in 1964 of a cultural ‘implosion’, we must now assert a new, opposite conclusion: Over the past fifteen or twenty years, that implosion has reached a critical mass and has reversed course, exploding in a universe-altering Big Bang of cognitive dispersion and dissolution.

Think of that clown-car horde swarming the Capitol. Then return to McLuhan describing television in 1964, like a barbarian order:

“The electric technology is within the gates, and we are numb, deaf, and blind about its encounter with the Gutenberg technology, on which and through which the American way of life was formed.”

Translation: Our Constitution was drafted as a compromise between large states and small, slave-holding and free. But that was just the ‘content’ of the time; the dominant medium of the era was print. The Constitution was cobbled together in much the same way that a printed page was assembled in the 18th century – at a time when the fastest information could travel was the speed of a galloping horse (“the Redcoats are coming!“). It’s a genuine marvel that it has lasted this long, more than a hundred years after information started to travel at the speed of light.

Imagine Marshall McLuhan writing fifty years later, in 2014 – two years before Twitter and 24- hours cable news produced Donald Trump.

21st Century Barbarians, armed with cell phone cameras

Barbarians at the gates, indeed. They are everywhere. There is no longer a single point of origin, like a newspaper printer or a radio or television station. Now the points of origin have reached parity with the points or reception. Everybody who has a laptop, a tablet, or a smart phone is a printer and a broadcaster.

What humanity is undergoing now is nothing less than a complete reversal of the cultural trajectory of the past five hundred years, mandated by the fragmentation bomb of digital technologies.

There are no gatekeepers.

Hell, there aren’t even any gates.

No wonder it was so easy for a mob of digital Visigoths to storm the ramparts of Congress.


2. #BrainDamage

the blue -> red political spectrum as a mental health assessment; on the left, a healthy, normal (blue) brain, on the right a diseased (red) brain

From the first ape with a thigh bone to the first nerd with a slide rule, cultural evolution has followed technological disruption.

If you can entertain the premise that the advent print in the 15th Century produced the Reformation (Bibles for everyone!) and The Enlightenment (Principia for everyone! Shakespeare for everyone else!), then you may begin to appreciate how the advent of digital communications has produced the chaos that we seem to be living through now.

Starting in the mid 1990s, when personal computers became common household appliances and we all got charmed by the chime of “You’ve Got Mail!”, to the early ‘aughts when broadband delivered the Celestial Jukebox into our pockets and purses, with all the collected knowledge of human history at our disposal with a couple of finger taps, that was enough to alter the way even the soundest of brains work. Most brains are not so sound.

Per McLuhan: The way information is organized, disseminated and gathered affects the way it is processed in our brains – and therein lies the root of our current dilemma: the Internet has rewired our brains, and a not-small percentage of humanity has gone from their brains being ‘rewired’ to actual #BrainDamage. What else can you call the widespread inability to distinguish between that which is real and true and that which is fabricated and conspiratorial?

In the third decade of the 21st Century, America is not suffering from a political divide; it is suffering from a mental health crisis.What is perceived as a political divide is not between left -v- right, it’s between the #BrainDamagedand the nominally functional who can still wrestle effectively with the vestiges of the Enlightenment: science, reason, and some grasp of objective facts.

In a recent episode of his podcast Another Way, the legal scholar Lawrence Lessig makes this straightforward observation:

“You can’t have a democratic republic if there is no foundation of shared truth.”

What the internet (and its older cousin, 24-hour cable news) has done is compromise the underpinnings of that foundation.The atomization of information has given every smartphone, tablet, and laptop user the ability to define their own reality – and more importantly, find at least some small cohort that will echo that vision.

I’m not a psychiatrist – I’m just playing on one the Internet – but it seems to me that the inability to process or live within the constraints of an objective reality would warrant a clinical diagnosis: schizophrenia2. I dunno, maybe there is a better DSM category for ‘unable to process reality.’ But how else would you describe a condition where otherwise seemingly functional people are suffering hallucinations of a free, fair, and certified election being ‘stolen’?

The mass delusion started settling in on January 20, 2017, when newly inaugurated President of the United States Donald J. Trump invoked the catchwords that will be carved onto the tombstone of his four years in that office: “American Carnage.”

But the real destruction – to the “foundations of shared truth” – did not begin until the following Sunday, when Kellyanne Conway went on Meet the Press and inaugurated the Era of Alternative Facts – at which point the Lawrence Lessigs of the world became headless statues, relics from a vaguely recalled, ancient past.

The content here is ‘alternative facts’; the message is, ‘you can’t have alternative facts without a media environment comprised of infinite sources and echo-chambers.’

Four years later, in his 2021 Inaugural address, Joe Biden spoke of “this uncivil war” – an oblique allusion to the rhetorical excesses of the previous four years.With that prompt, and for the sake of argument, let’s see how even a ‘shared foundation of truth’ can lead to a real Civil War:

America’s Civil War was the unfathomable penance the country was forced to pay for the absolution of its Original Sin. There was a deep and long-standing disagreement over the moral propriety of the ‘peculiar institution’ of slavery: Advocates from the South, like Kentucky Senator Henry Clay or Confederate Vice President Alexander Stevens could argue that the enslavement of humans from another continent was morally justifiable; abolitionists in the North considered the whole idea morally repugnant, degenerate and evil.But nobody denied that slavery in America existed. Nobody from the South had the temerity to say that slavery did not exist on the cotton and tobacco plantations.However objectionable, there was a ‘foundation of shared truth’ in the obvious, odious fact. The opinions around that factwere sufficiently entrenched on either side of the Mason Dixon line that the bloodiest war in American history was all it took to finally decide the issue.

That’s an example of struggling for the moral center of the Republic over a generally accepted fact – and going to war over the attendant difference of opinion.

NY Senator Daniel Moynihan, furtively arguing against “alternative facts.”

The trouble is, facts are not so agreeable in the 21st Century as they were in the 19th. The late Senator from New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “everybody is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.” I haven’t spoken to Senator Moynihan – he’s been dead for almost 20 years – so I think it’s safe to say that he is glad he did not live long enough to encounter the psychic carnage of ‘alternative facts’ and the mental instabilities of QAnon.

In November 2020, there was an election.The votes were counted.More than 60 court cases in countless different jurisdictions determined that the results of the count were free and fair, and allegations of widespread voter fraud and a ‘stolen’ outcome were universally dismissed.

But not so fast if you live in your own Internet-generated reality. Despite all the evidence, the forces of opposition cannot even agree that the conclusion is a certifiable, reliable, acceptable fact. Allegations of impropriety persisted despite their demonstrable falsehood. I contend that what we are witnessing is the message in the medium – in the form of digitally-induced brain damage.

I also think we have seen the worst of it. The fever dream is breaking.


3. #TheHighWaterMark

The monument on Cemetery Ridge marking ‘The High Water Mark of the Confederacy’


Finally, I have arrived at the history lesson that was the genesis of this entire screed. Sometime shortly after the Spectacle in the Capitol, the expression “high water mark” began bubbling in my brain.

This is something I learned during the Civil War Sesquicentennial through my work with The 1861 Project.

Pickett’s Charge was the final Confederate offensive at the Battle of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was already on its heels after falling short over the previous two days, but Lee decided to launch one more daring assault.

Lee ordered General George Pickett to advance his division across a mile of open field toward a Federal entrenchment on a rise appropriately enough called Cemetery Ridge.Despite monumental losses at the hands of Federal forces firing down on the advancing Confederates,the surviving element of Pickett’s division managed to reach the top of the ridge and briefly penetrate the Federal defenses.

Had that penetration held, had the Confederate forces prevailed on that day, then Lee and what was left of his Army might have been able to achieve their ultimate objective – advancing another 80 miles south to take the Capital at Washington, DC and end the War with a Union surrender.

But the Federal forces rallied, closed the breach in their line, and forced the Confederate Army back down the ridge.

That was the closest the Confederacy ever got to winning the Civil War. There is a monument that marks the spot where the Pickett’s Charge broke through as “The High Water of the Confederacy.”

Despite the Union victory at Gettysburg, the Civil War ground on for another brutal year and a half before Lee finally surrendered to Grant at Appomattox in April, 1865.

Stephen Lang as Gen. G. Pickett in “Gettysburg.” Lee: “General Pickett, you must look to your division!” Pickett: “General Lee, I have NO DIVISION!”

That image of Pickett’s Charge (which I am probably seeing in my mind’s eye from the 1993 movie ‘Gettysburg‘), is what comes to mind when I watch footage of the Capitol siege.

The element that stormed the Capitol that day were the victims of a con, susceptible by virtue of the #BrainDamage they have suffered from the disorienting effects of digital technologies.

And while there are still voices of derangement in Congress and elsewhere, those elements are now, finally, being pushed back to the fringe where the lunatics belong.

And I predict that someday in the not-too-distant-future we will look back on January 6, 2021 as “The HighwaterMark of The ConLunacy.”

The Federal Forces of Reason reassembled around an agreed upon foundation – beginning later that same day when Mitt Romney stood in the well of the United States Senate and declared of the fringe element: “we have to tell them the truth.”

At that moment, a long-absent concept was re-introduced into the political discourse: Lawrence Lessig’s ‘shared foundation of truth.’

Like a newborn infant, that concept struggles to survive. The forces of obsequious, sycophantic partisanship have not yet been driven entirely back into the intellectual swamp from whence they came.

Remember: although it took a year and half before Lee finally surrendered, the die was cast that bloody day in the summer of 1863.In much the same way that the forces of Union, democracy, and emancipation were not ultimately victorious until the spring 1865, the forces of reason and competence, science and data have been restored to the Federal government in 2021 – and will ultimately prevail in some near-if-unforeseeable future.

Some things are facts. Some things are fabrications.And even with the Internet (and all the gizmos that deliver it) undermining our print-engendered, Enlightenment-fostered processes of thought and reason, there is too much common sense in the world for an ideology based on fabrications to persist much longer.The tide has turned, the ConLunatics have been forced off the ridge, and ultimately, the Union of Common Sense and The Foundation of Shared Truth will reconstruct the Republic of Shared Truth.

Forget the elephant; this is the new symbol of the Republican party.

We are seeing the nascent signs of the return of reason, even as the media continue to focus on the bright, shiny insanity of people like Marjorie Taylor-Greene. The Kevin McCarthys and Lindsey Grahams of the world cannot help themselves. They live in the partisan confines of their own derangement. They cannot tell that their brains are broken, because they live inside them, like a fish does not know it swims in water. But there are a few – like Romney, like Adam Kinzinger or Liz Cheney, whose brains are not broken, who have managed to wade through the digital muck and arrive at a semblance of objective facts reality, and truth.

I am, for example, encouraged by one prominent conservative columnist who dares to wonder aloud , “Just How Nuts Is The Republican Party?”It’s about time somebody inside the tent started asking who’s pissing into it.

And there are indications that even the most deranged among us are capable of seeing the light, can repair their own #braindamage, and begin to put this Internet-induced mental-health crisis behind us.


4. #FutureSoBright

What were you doing when YOU were 22 years old??

There is still a lot of work to do.My God, there is a lot of work to do.

How much longer can we continue to be governed by (ageism alert!) septuagenarians (I get to say that because I are one) and octogenarians whose brains are more cognitively attuned to the workings of a rotary dial than a smartphone?

How much longer can the fate of the republic rest in the hands of one individual who presides over a legislative body where ten sparsely populated states have the same representation as one state with forty million people?

How much longer can we live in a republic where the chief executive can be elected with something other than a majority of the electorate?

And for God’s sake we have got to eradicate the notion that ‘corporations are people‘ and ‘money is speech’.

Something’s gotta give, so that we can return to the kind of governance where, when things are running well, we don’t have to think about it every waking minute of every day.

We should not have to worry about our national political structure; we should just go about our daily lives.

My favorite image from the inauguration: the first couples, holding hands like they mean it. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

But when the entire nation is in the grip of a pandemic, then that political structure has got to unify around in a common objective without the interference of a delusional fringe caught in the grip of a mass hallucination.

Further, we Boomer types have got to pave the way for the next generations.

Beside the words “All men are created equal” and “We the People,” we must enshrine the words of Amanda Gorman: “We are striving to forge our union with purpose. To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters, and conditions of man.”I’m sure that is a very different state of affairs than the republic of propertied white men that the Founders envisioned, but it is also the natural result of the trajectory they set in motion.

I am also encouraged by this recent commentary that surmises a peak in the swing of America’s pendulum, reaching the top of a forty-year cycle that started with the ascendance of Reagan conservatism (and the long since-discredited ‘voodoo economics’) in 1980. The pendulum is beginning to swing back, into a 21st Century embodiment of the sort of collective purpose that the country experienced beginning with the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932.

After four very dark and strange years, we have finally emerged into the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. The light is dim now, there are still shadows from the darkness, but the worst of the darkness is behind us, and the arc of history bends again toward justice.

It may be summer or fall before the light shines brightly, but once the pandemic is behind us, 2022 could be the start of another Roaring 20s. Only this time without the Prohibition.Too bad I don’t drink.

In addition to this viral pandemic, maybe by then we’ll have found a way of treating our nationalmental illness pandemic as well, and we can begin to welcome the digitally deranged back from the fringe. The deliverance of a prosperous and healthy nation will make it that much harder for a fringe element to gain the sort or traction this period of chaos has provided.

It’s really not like a grizzled curmudgeon like me to express that degree of optimism.

But… there it is.

Where are my shades?


– – – – – – – – – – – – –

This clip depicts the climactic moments of Picketts Charge from the 1993 film Gettysburg – the only Civil War movie ever filmed at the actual location. Click here for a playlist of the entire sequence of scenes from the film.

– – – – – – – – – –


1: I’ve gotten push-back on this line of thinking in the past.Here’s my push-back push-back:When you put a newspaper down, set it aside, are the letters and words still on the page?When you close your laptop, or put your tablet aside, are the characters stillon the screen?No?I rest my case.

2: There may be a more accurate term for the condition exhibited by the Delusional Branch of the Republican Party.Maybe it’s just dementia.Like said, I’m not a psychiatrist, I just play one on the Internet.Your mileage may vary.

Natural Persons

(In case you’re wondering: for the past several weeks, I have been enrolled in an online class exploring The Future of Constitutional Democracy hosted by Clay Jenkinson, the creator of The Thomas Jefferson Hour radio program and podcast that I have been listening to for the past 20 years. This week, participants in the class are asked to submit their suggestions for Amendments to the United States Constitution. Here’s mine:)


In his critique of the proposed Constitution that was drafted in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787, Thomas Jefferson – from his post in Paris as emissary to France – wrote to James Madison on December 20, 1787 about the need to for a Bill of Rights that would limit the new National Government’s powers and protect the Liberties of ‘We The People:’

First the omission of a bill of rights providing clearly & without the aid of sophisms for freedom of religion, freedom of the press, protection against standing armies, restriction against monopolies, the eternal & unremitting force of the habeas corpus laws, and trials by jury in all matters of fact triable by the laws of the land & not by the law of Nations

In October 1788 – during the period when the Constitution was being ratified – Madison wrote to Jefferson about the components of a Bill of Rights, which by then several states had insisted be added to the Constitution:

With regard to Monopolies they are justly classed among the greatest nuisances in Government…. Monopolies are sacrifices of the many to the few. Where the power is in the few it is natural for them to sacrifice the many to their own partialities and corruptions…”

Nevertheless, of the several protections that Jefferson and Madison discussed , the (only?) one that did not make it into the Bill of Rights when it was ratified at the end of 1791 was any provision that would have permitted “restriction against monopolies.”

When Madison and Jefferson were talking about monopolies, the Industrial Revolution had barely begun, and the monolithic concentrations of wealth with which we are now so familiar were not even a glimmer in their imaginations.

And yet, here we are, two centuries later, with multinational corporations superseding the power of sovereign governments, and using their vast wealth to bend those governments to their will – precisely as Madison predicted: sacrificing the welfare of the many to the “partialities and corruptions” of the few.

Over the course of the past century-and-a-half, one convention that has allowed corporate power to accumulate unfettered is the notion that “corporations are people” – and therefore entitled to the same rights and privileges extended to “persons” the Constitution. This convention has taken on ominous new meaning in the 21st century with 2010 Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United, wherein money was likened to speech and so could not be restricted under the protections of the First Amendment.

Accordingly, I propose a Constitutional Amendment that would serve the neat trick neutralizing Citizens United and begin the process of restoring the sovereignty of We The People:

– – – –

The rights, privileges, and protections embodied in this Constitution, and the laws adopted under its jurisdiction, are intended for the benefit of natural persons only.

[The first iteration of this post ended with the clause: “without regard to gender, race, religion or ethnic origin. I hesitate to add the last clause, which effectively breathes new life into the languishing Equal Rights Amendment. I am reminded of John Adam’s rejoinder to Abigail, “one revolution at a time” (paraphrasing), but, hey, were just thinking here, right?]

– – – –

The origins of the “corporations are people” doctrine is vague and mercurial. What I know on the subject I learned from reading Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights by Thom Hartmann. As Hartmann tells it, the transferance of Constitutional rights from ‘natural persons’ to ‘artificial persons’ or legal fictions such as corporations was never delivered in an actual decision from the Supreme Court.

Hartmann traces the origins of “corporations are people” to a relatively obscure 1886 SCOTUS case, Santa Clara County -v- Southern Pacific Railroad – but stresses that the doctrine was not expressed in the decision in that case. Rather, it was taken for granted prior to the decision being rendered.

Morrison R. Waite – 7th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

On p. 104 of Unequal Protection, Hartmann describes a statement made from the bench by Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite to the attorneys representing both sides in the case:

The court does not wish to hear arguments on the question of whether the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids a state to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, applies to these corporations. We are of the opinion that it does.

[Waite] then turned to Justice Harlan, who delivered the Court’s opinion in the case.

Thus, according to Hartmann, the matter was never actually decided, it was just taken for granted prior to the delivery of a decision denying the right of Santa Clara County to tax the railroad in a manner unequal to other forms of taxation.

Waite’s statement was recorded in the ‘headnotes’ to the actual decision by Court Reporter (J.C. Bancroft Davis) appended to the actual decision in SCC-v-SPRR.

That statement-not-a-decision has been with us ever since – and a Constitutional amendment originally intended to assure the rights of newly emancipated Negroes has been used instead to assure those rights to corporations (so much for “originalism”).

For the sake of this Proposed Amendment, I would argue that Waite’s conclusion was ‘wrongly presumed’ (you can’t use the Justice Speak of ‘wrongly decided’ here because it was not actually “decided”). Corporations are most decidedly not like actual human persons. Corporations can

–live forever
–exist in several places simultaneously
–change their identities at will
–chop of parts of themselves or
–sprout new parts

Just that first provision – that corporations, unlike “We The People” can live forever – should be enough to disqualify them from enjoying the same rights as natural persons.

And yet an obscure note, appended to a late 19th century SCOTUS decision, has bestowed the artificial persons called “corporations” with the same constitutional rights and protections accorded to actual persons. And now those artificial “persons” can spend as much money as they want to influence our political process.

Grover Cleveland (Donald Trump’s inspiration for running again in 2024)

A few pages further into Unequal Protection, Hartmann quotes President Grover Cleveland, who rang an alarm about corporate personhood and monopoly power in his State of the Union Address in December, 1888:

As we view the achievements of aggregated capital, we discover the existence of trusts, combinations, and monopolies, while the citizen is struggling far in the rear or is trampled to death beneath an iron heel. Corporations, which should be carefully restrained creatures of the law and servants of the people, are fast becoming the people’s masters.”

A Constitutional Amendment clarifying the definition of the word “persons” will eliminate the notion that “corporations are people.”

By denying corporations the rights and protections guaranteed to We The People in our Constitution, we can begin to reverse that domination and achieve the freedom from monopoly that Jefferson and Madison wrote about in 1787.

I agree, Jimmy, but it was never an actual “decision” to begin with!

How Is This Even Possible?

(Reflections on a Numerical Milestone)

by Paul Schatzkin
November 15, 2020

For the past few months, I have been looking at this photo and thinking I should have something to say about it pertinent to the occasion of my 70th birthday.

These are “the Schatzkin men.” In the center, my father, Harvey; on the left, my brother, Arthur; on the right, yours truly. The photo was taken in our backyard in Rumson, New Jersey in March, 1954 (note the white picket fence in the background). I was 3. Arthur was 6, and Harvey… well, we didn’t know it at the time, but Harvey had only a few years left on the planet: multiple myeloma dispatched him in 1958 at the age of 37.

Arthur died in 2011, just a month shy of his 63rd birthday. Glioblastoma – the same kind of brain cancer that nicked Ted Kennedy and John McCain.”Heart disease runs in some families,” my brother’s widow said at the time. “In your family it’s cancer.”

So here I am, having outlived them all, the only one of “the Schatzkin men” with a first-person need to learn how to spell “septuagenarian.”

How is this even possible? Read More

“Hamilton” – and Slavery:
I Made a YouTube

If you don’t wanna read all the verbiage, I’ll put the video here at the top:

Here’s a direct link if you’d rather open it in the YouTube app or a browser:

OK, Two things:

I suppose by now everybody who wants to has seen the Original Broadway Cast recording (not film!) of Hamilton – the musical sensation where a multi-ethnic cast (only George III is portrayed by a Caucasian actor) sings and dances their way through the classic (i.e. white-man’s version) tale of America’s Founding.

I’ve watched through the whole thing twice already, and various fragments of it as well and honestly… I think it’s pretty fucking fantastic.

I (finally!) managed to see the stage rendition last December when one or the ‘bus and truck’ road shows (finally!) found its way to Tennessee Performing Arts Center (aka TPAC) in Nashville. And I thought it was pretty fucking fantastic then, too.

So, I will admit to being a bit of a Hamilhead – though perhaps not as much as the fellow I watched it with on the 4th of July who has seen it on stage like half a dozen times. I considered myself quite fortunate to have seen it the once.

Anywhoo…. Hamilton was the First Thing.

The Second thing was… this ongoing discussion (via video conferences) that we’ve been having at my job about the whole #BlackLivesMatter moment and the necessary conversation the country has been having about the systemic racism which has been part of the American Story since…. well, since 1619, if you wanna be precise.

As part of that discussion, I volunteered for a “History subcommittee” that was assigned to come up with presentations to the rest of the staff about… well, whatever we wanted to dig into.

And since this discussion was all happening around the video release of Hamilton… I got the bright idea to do a (semi) deep-dive into the role (black) slavery played in the lives of all the (white) characters who are featured in the musical.

Open rabbit hole… fall in.

This turned into about 6 days of pretty much non-stop work: researching all the Founders portrayed in the musical (thank you, Internets), and then distilling what I learned into a Keynote presentation. Which also meant getting somewhat skilled with Keynote (Apple’s version of PowerPoint) and putting all my Photoshop chops to the test as well.

What was supposed to be maybe 10 minutes morphed into more than 20 minutes worth of material, and I finished the first complete top-to-bottom run through last Saturday – about 15 minutes before presenting it to a Webex with 100+ people tuned in. It was very warmly received and several people asked me to make it a video and put it on the YouTube.

Which meant another two days of fine-tuning; In addition to sorting out the vagaries of the Keynote application, I have also been grinding my way through a program called Logic to learn audio editing, which I decided to do to grab some clips from the actual show. And then I had to figure out how to put it all together in iMovie so that I could upload it all to YouTube.

It’s a 24 minute production that took me about 60 hours total to compile -basically the most actual “work” I’ve done in all the time I’ve been #HomeAlone. I guess it was about time I did something useful.

That’s all you need to know about what this is and how it got here. I’ll drop it the embed in here again so that if you’ve read this far you don’t need to scroll back to the top.

Thanks for watching. Leave your comments on the YouTube page.


#HomeAlone Day 105
A Trip to The Dentist

Notes from the Urban Dystopia:

My dentist is in the L&C Tower at 4th & Church, so I went downtown yesterday for the first time in four months. It was truly exciting to be able to put the top down on a beautiful summer day and have an actual place to go.

Once I got off the Interstate… “eerie” doesn’t begin to describe it.

I started to wonder where I was when I turned eastward onto Charlotte Pike and there was not another car in either direction for blocks. I passed a demonstration at Legislative Plaza where somebody was barking something through a bullhorn about the State Police stealing citizens property (hadn’t heard that protest before). I found a place to park right at the entrance to the garage (no circling around floor after floor looking for the one empty space).

The street was basically empty of pedestrians, though I was surprised/pleased to see that even outdoors most were wearing masks.

The lobby of the L&C tower was empty, with social distance markers spaced along the floor leading to the bank of empty elevators. I rode 9 floors to the dentist’s office alone in the elevator.

In the office, the waiting room was empty; The two women behind the desk were wearing masks. I was greeted by a masked young man who pointed a thermometer at my forehead and handed me a Covid Questionaire: “do you have a dry cough? fever? chills? headaches? fatigue?” After checking several boxes “no” I asked “are there any trick questions here or can I just mark them all ‘no’?” I handed the clipboard back and immediately went to the rest room and washed my hands.

The rest of the visit was like all the visits before. Hooray for nitrous – the only buzz I get after 32 years without a sip, a sniff, or a puff. The hygienist agreed with me that, despite all those awkward, adolescent years with braces, my front-lower teeth are “a mess.” She scraped away as best she could. My teeth are clean now. Mission accomplished, now back to solitary…

I drove down 4th Ave to Broadway, past several of the honky-tonks. More eeriness: the streets were empty, though here the few tourists I did see were less enmasked. What was weird was to hear country hits and standards blaring out of the clubs, and look inside to see them mostly empty. The sound echoed around the street in ways I’d never heard before.

Re-reading this before posting it, I realize the most-used word is “empty.”

Surprisingly, there are still scooters parked on the street, but it doesn’t appear that anybody body is using them. I’m surprised that’s still a thing.

Harvey & Ellen
Chapter 1: First ‘Darlings’

Harvey Schatzkin and Ellen Gould met on November 30, 1942.

As Ellen recalled decades later:

There was an Army Air Force communications school at Scott Field in East St. Louis. My good friend Howard Beck kept telling me that he wanted me to meet his brother Norman’s friend who was at Scott Field who was only free on Monday nights. At the time I had a regular Monday night date with a boy named Dan, and told Howard, “I don’t break dates.” But Howard kept insisting that his brother’s friend and I would really like each. I finally agreed and broke my usual Monday date. I was working at the USO downtown and Howard arranged to pick me up there.

November 30 in Missouri “dawned cold, snowy… blizzard-like.” Howard and Ellen rode the trolley through the drifting snow to have dinner at the home of a friend…

Hedy Lamar as the jungle temptress ‘Tondelayo’ in “White Cargo.” I’ve see the movie. It’s pretty awful.

And there was this really cute guy in the uniform of the U.S. Army Air Force Cadets named Harvey Schatzkin. We really did like each other. We had a perfectly great evening with lots of repartee and jokes. When the evening was over, Harvey took me on the trolley back to my apartment, and we made a date for the following Monday. I am not sure we knew it that night but I know now that it was “love at first sight.”

A week later they had their first date: Chinese food and a Hedy Lamar movie called “White Cargo.” Harvey returned to Scott Field and graduated from Officer’s Candidate School. Then the Army sent the newly minted Second Lieutenant to several locations on the East Coast before he landed at his first post: a weather station in Greenland.

Which left their new-found devotion to the vagaries of the mail in the middle of World War II.

I have all the letters. There are hundreds of them.

Harvey and Ellen’s letters, aka “The Pile.”

Harvey and Ellen’s letters, aka “The Pile.”

One of the things I have been doing over the past few months of Involuntary Covid Incarceration is reading all these letters and dictating them into digital documents. I’m almost done going through the “first tranche” – the letters they wrote between their meeting at the end of 1942 and their wedding in New York in January 1944. Whatever the final result, I think those two markers will serve as the bookends, so to speak.


Ellen and her father went to Alton Illinois to spend Christmas with family but…

I was feeling kind of miserable and I really couldn’t think why. I guess I figured I would never see Harvey again. We went to Alton and I was even more unhappy. In the middle of the afternoon the phone rang. It was Harvey. He had tracked me down and wanted me to come back to St. Louis. My father I thought I was crazy, but I talked him into leaving and taking me back to town. Harvey and I spent the evening together and we decided we were in love. We sort of got engaged. I don’t remember an actual proposal, but it was sort of taken for granted that we would get married someday.

While everybody is honoring their father’s on this Pandemic Father’s Day in 2020, I am going to honor both of my parents by sharing the beginning of their correspondence, exchanged over New Years 1942-43. They have known each other about a month at this point.

Harvey wrote first:

December 30, 1942
Hotel Miami
Dayton Ohio


(That’s the first time I ever started a letter that way; hope I spelled it right.)

In a room about six times too big for him sits a somewhat sleepy Second Lieutenant who has spent the day (1) signing papers and filling out forms, (2) thinking about you.

It’s been another one of those typical army days –standing in lines and waiting around while nothing happens. As usual I told six captains, ten sergeants and three men who sell Good Humors my name, address, birthplace and favorite seafood.

Tomorrow I have to go back and continue some more of the same since I did not get anywheres near finished today. Also tomorrow I shall move into the Bachelors Officers Quarters. By then I should have an address and will expect you to send me cases of champagne, boxes of caviar and other little items essential to my well-being.

I am wondering if you have enough Air Corps knickknacks to get along avec. I’ve had my agents working on the case and they have come up with the following information which may be of interest to you:

To begin with, very popular this year are full-size propellers; they are strapped across the back and considered excellent for travel in crowded buses; Another item that is definitely chic for junior misses, sub-debutantes and Pomeranians are old carburetors; A spray of wisteria and a few drops of 100-octane gas are added, and the whole business made into the neatest little hat you’ve ever seen. Also high on there list are hearts of newly-minted Second Lieutenants – but, then, what would you do with more than one?

Honey, tonight while waiting to see if I can sell the hotel the idea of letting me have a bed upon which to toss my weary bones and blood and stuff I heard music pouring out of the little bar they have here – the Kotex room or something, I think it’s called. Like a little, hungry tyke on a cold day looking into a bakery shop I pushed my nose against the glass. It was just one of those quiet little bars with a three piece orchestra, soft blue lights, and scattered couples sitting around. I figured it would take a long time to get your hat on and get down here, but something inside me just got all knotted up, and all I can think of was how I wish you were here, darling.

I kind of think I’m getting tired so I can sleep (Gee wouldn’t that make a clever song title) so I’ll close this one up. I’ll write you again as soon as I have an address.

All my love, darling, and right now I’m kissing you good night.



The next day, Ellen wrote back….


December 31, 1942

New Year’s Eve


Gee, it seems funny writing that.It’s the first time for me, too.

I was so glad to hear your voice today. And you called just at a time when I was thinking hardest about you, wishing you were here and thinking about how much I love you.

The trip back from the station was like a rocket trip to some other planet, and equally as terrifying. In fact I’ve written to General Arnold to see if that cab driver could not be presented a pair of wings. He handled that cab beautifully in the air.

Daddy fell down a flight of stairs today and hurt his back! He can’t move. The doctor doesn’t know whether there are any broken bones or not. He told him to stay in the bed until Saturday, and then come down for an x-ray. He’s better tonight, though. He can turn over, etc. When he came in this morning he was a pale chartreuse. His stomach has been bothering him for two weeks, and now this. If it weren’t for you darling I wouldn’t have a very happy New Year.

As I told you over the phone, I lost my wallet with our gas ration books. See what you do to me? I never lose things.

I think I have enough Air Corps bric-a-brac. In fact if things get too tough, I’ll turn myself in to the scrap metal drive.

I really didn’t have to tell anyone about us. People just looked at the expression on my face, and guessed that I was in love. They don’t know how wonderful you are.

I was going to a party tonight. They all insisted I come, date or not. But now I feel that I ought to stay home with Daddy.

I went marketing today. I just love to go marketing. You find such interesting things, things you’ve never eaten before, but someone must.OK, I’ll take a can. As I stood in line with my booty, I trembled from head to foot, suffused in shame, thinking what Mr. Wickardwould say if you could see me.I looked around, and instead of the usual expressions on the faces of my fellow shoppers – The pensive look: have I forgotten anything?; The worried look;:This is going to cost too much; The harassed look: Did the maid remember to take little Ambrosia out? – These were all supplanted by grim looks of of determination, as knuckles turned white from gripping the cart handles.

Each woman had the gleam of a Commando in her eye. This strange transformation did not change till she was out of the store with her precious cargo of cans.Then you’d hear something like this, “I know this is unpatriotic, but you know, Oswald just adores pickled snails, and what with rationing, well, I just don’t know what he’d do, so I just thought I’d get a few….

I read Daddy parts of your letter, and he thought you were very, very clever.Of course, I think so, But I’m kind of prejudiced.You see, I’m very much in love with you.

Howard called the other night.He kept asking me what was new.So I started to tell, and then he admitted that he knew all about it, and thought it was wonderful.So do I.

Daddy is getting lonesome in there by himself and wants me to come in and talk to him, so I guess I’ll say Good Night, honey.

Happy New Year, darling, and I hope we’ll be able to spend next New Year’s Eve together.

I love you,



They didn’t spend New Years 43/44 together but Harvey was furloughed back to the States for the holidays that year. Ellen and her father went east to New York, and they were married at Harvey’s parents apartment on January 16, 1944. Harvey had just turned 23, Ellen was 22.

I haven’t figured out yet what I am going to do with all this material… Book? Screenplay? Podcast? Multimedia Internet Extravaganza? Dunno yet.

But I figure there’s a story in there somewhere. Some of you already know how it ends…

Incidentally, the working title “I’ve Heard That Song Before” comes from a popular recording by the Harry James Orchestra that Harvey and Ellen both reference several times in the correspondence. I guess that was “their song.” And it’s a pretty good one…


Today in #TMITM
And The Truth is Finally Breaking Through

The revolution may or may not be “televised” – but it is definitely being “packet-switched*.

I see a video like this and I think: oh good, the truth is finally breaking through.

Tulsa? Rosewood? Never heard about that on ABNBCBS, did ya?

This is what’s different between now and, say, 1968 – the last time convulsive dissonance tore a hole in the fabric of our cultural universe.

In the 60s, the media environment was dominated by three primary channels. Even when The Whole World WAS Watching, the message was homogenized and filtered through those three channels. Three points of origin transmitted that carefully pasteurized message to an infinite number of points of reception. Yeah, the police are rioting, and clubbing kids in the street, but… Laugh In! Mary Tyler Moore! Power structure intact!

This is what’s different now: The internet has produced a world of channel parity. Every point of origin is a point of reception. Every citizen has their own channel.

And the truth is finally breaking through.

We are all transmitters and receivers. And when a man gets murdered on the street in broad daylight, there is always somebody there to record it. As Will Smith said: “Racism is not getting worse, it’s getting filmed.” Because we have all these gizmos in our pockets, there is no longer any corporate or political force that can control the narrative.

And finally, the truth is breaking through.

Kimberly Jones lets us in here on the Dirty Little Secret: The system IS NOT broken, it is working precisely the way it was designed to work. The forces that we were taught are here to protect us are actually protecting the now obsolete narrative

We are all Kimberly Jones now.

And the truth is finally breaking through.

I use the hashtag that begins this post a lot. #TMITM = “The Medium Is the Message.” When he coined that expression in 1964 Marshall McLuhan explained: “Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication.”

In other words, it is not until the media environment changes that new content can be delivered. The printed Bible fostered the Reformation; newspapers fostered republican democracy; first radio and then television reorganized society around broadcasting towers. The advent of the Internet reversed those trends toward ever larger audiences. Everybody is a transmitter, everybody is a receiver.

After a decade of smartphones, the truth is finally breaking through.

When I first got on “the Internet” in 1993, with McLuhan’s maxim in mind, I wanted to believe that this fundamental change in our media environment would ultimately foster a fundamental change in the way our society functions. The advent of the Internet fed whatever idealism was left over of my sensibilities from the 1960s.

I have despaired over past decade, as I have watched ‘social media’ poison the world’s discourse and flood it with disinformation and crazy talk and unleash a whole world of stupid. Even as the movement of the past few weeks erupted. I’d lost hope that the promise I thought I saw 30 years ago had foundered.

Kimberly Jones has restored my hope. This video is by orders of magnitude the most information-packed three minutes you will see this week, this month, this year.

It has taken almost 30 years since my first packets of hope were delivered, but the truth is finally breaking through.
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H/T Heather Larkin Vogler

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*”packet switching” is the fundamental technology that made the Internet possible. When you Google those keywords, the result will be delivered in “packets.” You could…umm… Google it.